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Americans Overwhelmingly Engaged in 2016 Election but Tone of Race Is Affecting Voters, New GW Battleground Poll Shows

Obama’s Approval Rating Turns Positive for First Time in Three Years

April 25, 2016
Jason Shevrin: [email protected], 202-994-5631
John Brandt: [email protected], 202-994-3199
WASHINGTON (April 25, 2016)—The 2016 presidential election is on the top of most Americans’ minds, according to the latest George Washington University Battleground Poll. Despite, or perhaps because of, the high level of engagement, voters have negative views of almost all major candidates, and report the tone of the race is wearing on them.
The bipartisan GW Battleground Poll, conducted in partnership with The Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners, asked likely voters how closely they’ve followed the presidential campaign over the last year. Eighty-nine percent reported they’ve followed the race either “very” or “somewhat” closely. More than half (52 percent) of respondents reported receiving updates on the campaigns via social media. 
The GW poll found that of the five candidates still in the race for the highest office, only two—Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Ohio governor John Kasich—have an unfavorable rating below 50 percent, at 44 and 29, respectively. The other three—former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (56 percent), Texas Senator Ted Cruz (55 percent) and businessman Donald Trump (65 percent)—are all mostly disliked. 
All the candidates with unfavorable ratings above 50 percent also have a majority of voters saying that they would not consider voting for them for president. When asked about increasingly visible former President Bill Clinton, respondents showed more positive views toward the non-candidate, with 54 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable toward him.
In a head-to-head matchup of each party’s frontrunner, Mrs. Clinton leads Mr. Trump by only 3 percentage points nationally (46 to 43; 11 percent undecided). Comparatively, Mr. Sanders fares slightly better against Mr. Trump (51/40/10).
“The Republican Party has a strongly favorable political environment for winning the White House,” said pollster Ed Goeas, president and CEO of The Tarrance Group. “If a mainstream Republican candidate were the presumptive nominee, the GOP would likely be in a strong position for a lot of wins, top to bottom, in November. “
Language on Campaign Trail ‘Repulsive’
This election cycle introduced a new tone and tenor of rhetoric used on the campaign trail. The coarseness of the language has started to have an impact on voter perceptions of the race. Half of the likely voters surveyed said that this language is “repulsive” and has no place in a presidential campaign. Just 18 percent found the caustic words “offensive but understandable” and only 6 percent thought it was “just the jolt our political system needs.” More than a third, 36 percent, say that this type of language has made them less likely to vote for a particular candidate. 
This reaction to campaign rhetoric was common across parties. The plurality (37 ‎percent) of Republicans, the plurality (40 percent) of independents and the majority (66 percent) of Democrats said the language is “repulsive.” Another 22 percent of Republican, 23 percent of independents and 12 percent of Democrats said it's “offensive but understandable.”
“Already we have a unique election combining insecurity, frustration, engagement, desire for change and serious pushback on the tone of the campaigns,” said pollster Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners. “Hillary Clinton has the edge because voters know it takes experience and a calm head to get things done and protect the country.”
America Still Divided 
The current president fared better than the candidates. The poll found President Barack Obama’s job approval rating has risen to 51 percent, with 46 percent of respondents disapproving. This is the first time since December 2012 the GW Battleground Poll found a higher approval than disapproval rating.
Despite the improving sentiment for the president, a majority of the likely voters surveyed, 66 percent, say that the country is on the wrong track, with 56 percent feeling strongly about that statement. This continues the longest trend in GW Battleground Poll (and possibly all polling) history. Sixty percent want the next president to take the country in a different direction; the economy (19 percent), dysfunction in government (14 percent) and foreign threats (11 percent) were seen as the three most important issues facing the nation. 
“There is bad news aplenty here for both parties. Voters are disheartened, discouraged about the future and disdainful of the leading candidates in both parties,” said Christopher Arterton, founding dean of the GW Graduate School of Political Management. “On many important issues, the public seems to lean toward the Republican party, setting the stage for an election that could go their way. But since the two candidates with the best chance of receiving the Republican nomination are viewed even more unfavorably at this point than Secretary Clinton, there's a good chance we are headed into an election where voters will see their choice as between the lesser of two unhappy options.”
While there is a clear desire to change course, Americans continue to be divided on how to achieve these goals, with nearly equal percentages saying that the government in Washington should “see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living” (47 percent) or “get out of the way and let the free market help people succeed” (46 percent).
Economic anxiety continues to pervade the American voter’s mind, with 72 percent worried that the U.S. will suffer another economic downturn that will negatively affect them. Voters also believe that the next generation will not be better off than the current generation (65 percent, with 50 percent strongly holding that view). International trade agreements, seen by some as a path to economic growth and prosperity, fare poorly among survey respondents. A 50 percent majority said such agreements have been bad for the U.S. economy and another 13 percent believe they have not had much impact. 
The George Washington University Battleground Poll
The George Washington University Battleground Poll is a nationally recognized series of surveys conducted by Republican pollster Ed Goeas of The Tarrance Group and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners. GW’s Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) and the School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) serve as the university’s home for the partnership. GW’s Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library houses the data archive of the survey results dating back more than two decades.
The poll, which is distinguished from other surveys by its presentation of separate analyses from these top pollsters representing both sides of the aisle, surveyed 1,000 registered likely voters nationwide April 17-20 and included a protocol for reaching mobile phone users. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
For complete data and results, including additional numbers on the 2016 elections and national security, visit the GW Battleground Poll homepage.
Interview Opportunities
  • Christopher Arterton, founding dean of GW’s Graduate School of Political Management (contact Jason Shevrin at 202-994-5631)
  • Ed Goeas, president and CEO of The Tarrance Group (contact Brian Nienaber at 703-684-6688)
  • Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners (contact Anderson Gardner at 202-776-9066)