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Poll: Voters see the nation as fundamentally divided

Steve Peoples and Hannah Fingerhut
Associated Press

New York — The overwhelming majority of voters believe the nation is deeply divided over its most important values, and many have doubts about the health of the democracy itself. And supporters of President Donald Trump and Joe Biden alike think the opposing candidate will make things even worse if elected, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Overall, 85% of registered voters describe Americans as being greatly divided in their values, and only 15% say that democracy in the United States is working extremely or very well. The poll shows voters overall are especially pessimistic about the impact of Trump's reelection: 65% say divisions would worsen if the Republican president were reelected, a number that includes a quarter of his supporters.

In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo supporters react as President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Des Moines International Airport in Des Moines, Iowa.

Thirty-five percent of voters believe Biden would divide the country further should he win the presidency. More, 47%, think the country would be unified if the Democrat were elected.

“Somebody’s got to unite our country,” said Gary Conard, a 64-year-old Republican who lives in Clever, Missouri. “I just think our society is confused and in trouble.”

The poll offers a window into the depth of the division and chaos shaping the American electorate less than three weeks before Election Day. Voters are sharply divided over several major issues based on their partisan lenses, including their personal safety during the coronavirus pandemic, the value of diversity and the health of American democracy.

The cavernous rift represents a daunting challenge for the winner of the November election, as voters from each side seem to agree only on one thing: the extent of their divisions.

In this Oct. 9, 2020, file photo supporters watch as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Las Vegas drive-In campaign event at Southeast Career Technical Academy in Las Vegas.

Fully 88% of Biden supporters and 80% of Trump supporters view Americans as greatly divided on important values. Supporters for both candidates think a win for the opposing side will worsen those divisions: 76% of Trump supporters say this of Biden, and 91% of Biden backers say this of Trump.

About half of all voters say that democracy in the United States is not working well, and about another third think it's working only somewhat well. Roughly twice as many Biden supporters as Trump supporters have a pessimistic view of the health of democracy. Still, 3 in 10 Trump supporters say democracy isn't working well. And at least 8 in 10 on both sides say the other candidate’s election would weaken democracy.

While Republicans fear the possibility of what Trump predicts without evidence will be a rigged election, Democrats are worried that inconsistent election laws, voter intimidation and Republican lawsuits will make it more difficult for their supporters to cast ballots given heightened health concerns during the pandemic.

The poll finds fewer than half of voters say they are highly confident that votes in the election will be counted accurately, but more Biden supporters than Trump supporters say that, 53% vs. 28%.

There also are dramatic differences in concerns about the pandemic — and views of Trump's response to it — based on political leanings.

Nearly 6 in 10 Biden supporters report being very worried that they or someone in their family will be infected with the coronavirus, compared to just about 2 in 10 Trump supporters. Close to half of Trump supporters say they are not worried.

Linda Railey, a 73-year-old Republican who lives in rural Alexander City, Alabama, said she's not worried about the pandemic because she and her husband are taking precautions like washing their hands, limiting contact with other people and wearing masks when they are in public. They only go to the grocery store and church, she said.

“I worry about it for other people,” Railey said, noting that she lives in a rural area about 15 minutes outside the nearest town. “We stay home as much as we can.”

And as the nation struggles through intense clashes over civil rights, the poll highlights different views on the value of diversity.

Half of Trump supporters said that the nation's diverse population “of many different races, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds” makes the country stronger. About 3 in 10 Trump supporters said such diversity doesn't strengthen or weaken the nation, while about 2 in 10 say it makes the country weaker.

Among Biden supporters, 75% believe that diversity makes the country stronger.

Overall, Biden has an advantage over Trump as the candidate trusted to handle the coronavirus pandemic (52% to 28%), race relations (53% to 28%) and Supreme Court nominations (45% to 34%). Biden and Trump are competitive on the economy, gaining the trust of 43% and 42%, respectively. But each camp overwhelmingly trusts its own candidate over the other to handle key issues.

Noah Talbott, a 22-year-old unaffiliated voter who lives outside Richmond, Virginia, and works at Chick-fil-A, criticized Trump's leadership on several issues and blamed him for exacerbating political and racial divisions.

“I wouldn’t say I’m proud to be an American right now," he said. “We’re way too divided.”

Talbott didn't vote four years ago but said he would vote for Biden this fall — a decision he described as “more of a vote against Trump” than for his Democratic challenger.

For all their differences, the poll found that both Biden and Trump supporters are about equally engaged in the campaign.

Conard, of Missouri, said he doesn't see an end to the divisions plaguing America, but he said it's in Trump's best interests to unify the nation. He plans to vote for the president on Election Day, believing that Biden has already had a chance after spending almost a half-century in Washington.

“One man had 47 years and he didn’t get it done so you’ve got to look somewhere else,” Conrad said. “Trump wants the country to do well. For it to do well and for him to look good, he’s got to bring people together. And he can do it — at least, I hope he can."

Fingerhut reported from Washington.

The AP-NORC poll of 1,121 adults was conducted Oct. 8-12 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4 percentage points.