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USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll: Ahead of Election Day, 3 of 4 voters worry about violence in a divided nation

  • October 29, 2020

Americans are increasingly worried about what will happen at the finish line of this year’s tumultuous election, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds, including whether the voting will be peaceful and the outcome broadly accepted.

Three of 4 voters express concern about the possibility of violence on Election Day. Only 1 in 4 say they are “very confident” that the nation will have a peaceful transfer of power if Democratic challenger Joe Biden defeats President Donald Trump. 

“There’s a very angry undertone out there right now,” said Monica Ponton, 72, of St. Petersburg, Florida. The registered nurse, a Democrat who was called in the survey, has already cast her ballot for Biden. “I’m in my 70s, and I feel like this is one of the scariest times I’ve ever seen for America since possibly (President) Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis” in 1962.

Biden holds a steady 8-point lead over Trump in the nationwide poll, 52%-44%, taken after the final presidential debate last Thursday. That reflects little change since the survey taken at Labor Day, the launch of the fall campaign season, when the former vice president led by 7 points, 50%-43%.

Democrats hold a double-digit advantage on congressional races. By 49%-39%, those surveyed say they are more likely to vote for an unnamed Democratic House candidate than an unnamed Republican. 

Week in polls:Trump gains in 9 of 12 swing states, but Biden still leads in 10 of them

The stability in the presidential horse race isn’t reflected in confidence about the vote itself, though, including fears that aren’t traditionally associated with mature democracies. The findings underscore the challenges the eventual winner will face if he wants to unite and reassure an anxious nation.

“I think it’s a bit rocky right now,” Rachel Hage, a stay-at-home mother of three from Boise, Idaho, replied when asked in a follow-up interview about how things were going in the country. A Republican, she plans to go to the polls on Election Day to vote for Trump. 

‘Unprecedented’:Voter turnout could reach highest rate in more than a century

The broad reach of COVID-19  

Just about everyone has been touched by COVID-19. A majority of those surveyed, 53%, say the pandemic has had a “major impact” on their lives. An additional 30% say it has had a minor impact. 

That impact includes the disease itself, which has infected nearly 9 million Americans and killed more than 227,000, and the economic upheaval in its wake.

U.S. coronavirus map:Tracking the outbreak

Asked an open-ended question to name the single issue that was most important in deciding their vote, 19% cited the economy and jobs. Ten percent said the pandemic, and an additional 9% said health care, a related concern. The only other issue that reached double digits was “character/honesty/trust,” mentioned by 10%.

There was a partisan divide on what issue mattered most. Republicans were much more likely to cite the economy, not the coronavirus, as their driving concern, 32% compared with 4%. But Democrats were much more likely to cite the pandemic, not the economy, 15% compared with 5%. 

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debate in September at Case Western University in Cleveland.

Together, those two concerns overwhelmed others, even hot-button issues. Just 3% named abortion rights or the environment/climate change; 2% taxes or immigration; 1% gun control or education. 

“The lockdowns are hard on people,” said Amy Callahan, 52, a homemaker from Danville, Illinois. A Republican, she plans to cast an early ballot for Trump.

 “I have an elderly father who’s 82 that used to go to coffee every morning with his friend, and not being able to do that – it’s really taken a toll on him,” she said. Public health officials say steps such as social distancing are crucial to containing the virus, especially for seniors who are most vulnerable to the disease. “He really misses being with his friend.”

Her husband’s business, which provides flood-zone certification needed for home sales, has been booming. But they miss the full fellowship of their church. “If you go to church you wear your mask,” she said, “and everybody kind of gets out of there quickly.”

The survey of 1,000 likely voters, taken by landline and cellphone Friday through Tuesday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. 

When it comes to handling the coronavirus, just 38% approve of the job done by the president, who has been criticized for downplaying the disease and sending mixed messages about how to control it, That’s lower than his 48% approval rating in handling the economy and his 44% job-approval rating overall.

Trump may have paid a price for continuing to hold massive campaign rallies where most of his supporters don’t wear face masks and none of them are socially distant from others, as epidemiologists advise. Nearly 6 in 10 of those surveyed, 59%, disapprove of Trump’s decision to go ahead with his signature rallies despite the pandemic. Trump himself caught the coronavirus, as have more than a dozen members of his inner circle

Trump campaign stops:Coronavirus cases surged in his wake in at least five places.

In contrast, more than 6 in 10, 64%, approve of Biden’s decision not to hold large rallies because of COVID-19. Trump has repeatedly mocked Biden for wearing face masks and campaigning “from his basement” in Wilmington, Delaware. Three people associated with the Biden campaign have tested positive for the virus.  

‘I’m a little bit frightened’ 

Most Americans are braced for trouble when the campaign finally ends.

Three of 4 say they are concerned about the possibility of violence on Election Day and afterward; more than a third are “very concerned.” Only about 1 in 5, 22%, express little or no concern.

That reflects a significant shift over the past four years. In October 2016, the USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll found that almost half of Americans, 47%, had little or no concern about violence around the election.

“Honestly, I’m a little bit frightened,” said Valerie Soldatow, 40, of Pittsboro, North Carolina. An independent, she didn’t vote in 2016 and has now cast a ballot for Biden, albeit without much enthusiasm, in hopes of bringing about change. “There’s a lot of division. I feel like there is much more hatred and a lot more aggressiveness being shown by people, and that to me is very frightening.”

Since the last election, confidence that there will be a peaceful transfer of power has eroded, perhaps because Trump has refused to commit to that. At this point in 2016, 40% of Americans were “very confident” about a peaceful transfer of power. Now just 23% are. Nearly 4 in 10 have little confidence that will happen.

On that issue, Republicans are more confident than Democrats. 

“Voters on both sides traditionally expect a trick-or-treat on Election Day,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk Political Research Center. “In this election, there is a much deeper fear of violence not only on Election Day, but for many days thereafter.”

There is bipartisan agreement, ironically, on whether the country’s divisions are deeper than they have been in the past: 69% say they are, a finding that generally holds across party lines. Of 1,000 likely voters polled, only 32 people, or about 3%, say the divisions are less deep than in the past. 

By 2-1, 58%-29%, those surveyed say the country has gotten off on the wrong track.

Election 2020:Terrified to lose and afraid to hope

“I think a lot of people are just barely hanging on,” said Tim Barber, 31, a Democrat who works at a homeless shelter in Salt Lake City. He has cast an early vote for Biden. “I was having friends finishing grad school or dental school or med school and starting to get houses, have one or two kids” and feel settled. “Now so many things just feel up in the air (and) uncertain.”

Barber added, “I wish there weren’t so many possible frightening things on the horizon, but here we are.”

Trump made many promises early on:What did he keep, what is he still working on?

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