Linda Wattley has one word to describe America’s most reviled pair of major-party presidential candidates.
“Disgusting,” the Akron woman said. “They have revealed so much darkness in each other, and their choices in business and life, that it’s like you can’t trust anybody. You can’t attach yourself to someone and be proud and happy.”
Wattley, 59, plans to vote, but she really doesn’t want to.
“I’m going to vote because to not vote is what [Donald] Trump wants everyone to do,” said Wattley, referring to the Republican candidate’s routine claims that the election is rigged. “He wants people to say forget it. That’s his total dynamic. He doesn’t have to be logical; he just has to be mentally controlling. [And] he’s doing a great job. ‘I don’t want to vote.’ That’s what he wants you to say. But I am.”
The levels of disgust in politics, driving some not to vote and others to do so with great indignation, is at its highest level in the eight years the question has been asked of Ohioans.
Polling by the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics for the Your Vote Ohio project indicates that public opinion of politics — the candidates, elected officials, how campaigns are run — hit the lowest points in June and again this fall.
The question came near the end of the telephone survey of more than 1,000 Ohioans: “Thinking about American politics in general, the quality of our elected officials, the way our election campaigns are run and so on …” how disgusted are you? Respondents placed themselves on a 10-point scale.
About 67 percent of Ohioans — two out of three — in the poll released last week placed themselves on the disgusted side of the scale, down one point from June, when the country was finishing the political primaries.
In contrast, only 22 percent were disgusted in 2008 when the Ohio economy already was unraveling.
That nearly everyone has grown more disgusted tracks historically low approval ratings for government institutions, especially among younger generations. And there is no surprise that Republicans are more disgusted than Democrats, because the party not in the White House always is the most unsettled.
But it is in parsing the data from June to August to October that aha moments develop. While the overall numbers are little changed — men continue to be more disgusted than women — women’s disgust made the most meaningful leap of any demographic group from August to October.
Bliss Institute director John Green, after discussing his poll’s findings with a neighbor, said reasons to remain hopeful for a turnaround are fading faster than the warm weather.
“Politics has reached a new low in terms of incivility, negativity and productivity,” Green said. “From the point of view of many Ohioans,” as his neighbor put it, “what is there not to be disgusted about?”
By age, Generation X consistently has been the most upset each time the poll was conducted this year — in June, August and October. Millennials (Ohio’s youngest voting block) and baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) have jockeyed for second-most disgusted.
But boomers have gyrated, dropping their level of disgust more than anyone else from June to August, then surging more than other generations by October when the debates were underway. (Greatest Generation changes were more pronounced, but the number polled was too small to have statistical significance.)
“One idea,” Green explained, “is that both Clinton and Trump are boomers. Also boomers are more engaged in politics than the younger generations and have memories of a more civil time in American politics. This election among the ‘exemplars’ of their generation may be especially troubling to them.”
Digging deeper into the generational numbers, it is the Trump supporters within boomers and millennials whose frustration grew most.
A higher level of disgust among Trump supporters creates the question of which came first: Is it disgust with Clinton and traditional politics that pushed unhappy people to Trump, or is it Trump’s words and actions that have turned his supporters into conflicted people?
“With only a few exceptions, Trump supporters seem to express more disgust,” said Ryan Claassen, a Kent State political professor who reviewed the poll results. “This might be taken to mean that words on the campaign trail matter. If a candidate goes around saying everything is a mess and providing very little by way of a substantive policy vision for a better future, supporters express disgust.”
Trump has campaigned on an America that used to be great. As Clinton pulled away in the polls following the first two presidential debates, Trump has increased the tension by casting the election as rigged by the media and, without evidence, voter fraud.
Fully 71 percent of Trump fans are disgusted, up from 65 percent in August but below the 74 percent high-water mark in June. This compares to only 57 percent of disgruntled Clinton fans, up from 53 percent in August and also down from a June high of 61 percent.
It is the independents, however, whether religious or not, old or young, male or female, rich or poor, who are thoroughly disgusted at 75 percent.
Revelations Oct. 7 of Trump bragging about groping women — and his subsequent denials, criticism about the looks of his accusers and attempts to deflect onto his opponent’s adulterous husband — are not sitting well with women.
Disgust among women grew 7 percentage points from August to October while men increased only 2 percentage points.
What’s surprising, though, is how men and women differ based on the candidate they support. For Trump supporters, there is little deviation: 70 percent of women and 71 percent men supporting the billionaire businessman say they’re disgusted with politics. Among Clinton fans, however, 61 percent of men and only 54 percent of women are disgusted.
The October bombshell was Trump’s bragging about fondling women. “When you’re a star,” he says in the video, “[Women] let you do it. You can do anything.”
Republicans and his supporters have condemned the misogynistic comments, made in 2005.
“I do not agree with what he said. I do not support that at all, but everyone’s human, and we make mistakes,” said Brian Walters, a 57-year-old executive from suburban Stark County. Still, Walters said, the incident is “way too coincidental.”
While many women are appalled, some Trump fans are undeterred. They say Clinton is disqualified by scandals, untrustworthiness and a husband who faced impeachment for lying about his infidelity while president.
“I think it’s far-fetched. Blown out of proportion,” said Trump supporter Donna Brill, 57, a former nurse’s aide from Cambridge, Ohio. “Maybe it really never happened. I never seen [the tape] so I guess I can’t say anything. Anybody can make a video, you know what I mean? But it’s not different to me than what Hillary’s husband did either.”
Mainline Protestants also shot up on the “disgust factor” scale.
“Interesting, both Clinton (United Methodist) and Trump (Presbyterian USA) are mainline Protestants,” said Green, an expert on religion and politics. “This religious tradition has been especially committed to civil politics — but also has had a great deal of internal political turmoil between political liberals and conservatives within their ranks. The current election has exacerbated these tensions.”
Mainline Protestants went from among the least disgusted to the most disgusted in a matter of three months. Within this group, disgust among Trump supporters went up 23 percentage points and for Clinton backers only 11 percentage points.
The non-religious remain the most satisfied of Trump’s base.
Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.