USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll: Americans, braced for violence at the inauguration, see democracy damaged after Trump
Most Americans are braced for violence at President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll finds, amid an overwhelming consensus that the nation's democracy has been weakened since the last president was sworn in four years ago.
The survey finds an anxious and embattled electorate, the divisions from the November election still raw. Two-thirds say the country is headed in the wrong direction, a double-digit jump since last month.
"It should be a happy time ... but I am very nervous and frightened," says Sandi Bethune, 71, a Democratic retiree from Oakland, California, who voted for Biden.
"We are supposed to be the pinnacle of democracy that the rest of the world aspires to be," she says in a follow-up interview after being called in the poll. But in the assault Jan. 6 on the Capitol, "we cracked it."
President Donald Trump's standing has eroded since his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago. The percentage who say they would definitely vote for him if he ran for president again in 2024 has dropped 7 percentage points since December, to 23%, and his job approval rating has sagged 4 points, to 41%.
Those shifts have taken place in less than four weeks, since a USA TODAY/Suffolk poll in mid-December. The new survey of 1,000 registered voters by landline and cellphone was taken Monday through Friday. Each has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
A narrow majority, 52%-45%, says Trump should be removed from office.
"The recent storming of the Capitol and impeachment of President Donald Trump a second time have stained Trump's legacy," says David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. "In less than a month, Trump's numbers have tumbled across the board."
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The outgoing president retains a significant measure of the political base that has stuck with him through two elections and four tumultuous years. Among Republicans, 55% say they would definitely vote for him if he ran in 2024 – though that's a big drop from the 71% who said that in December. Twenty-five percent say they might vote for him, and 14% say they definitely wouldn't.
His job approval rating in the GOP stands at 90%, not a meaningful change from the 92% approval he scored among Republicans in December.
That level of loyalty could complicate the hopes of establishment Republicans to move beyond Trump once he leaves the White House this week.
"He's probably hard to get along with," acknowledges Jimbo Selph, 39, an auto mechanic from Callahan, Florida. A Republican, he voted for Trump in November. But, he adds approvingly, "You don't have to like the man to know what he did for the country."
70% call the Capitol mob 'criminals'
Many Americans were shocked and shaken by video of rioters rampaging through the halls of the Capitol and on the House and Senate floors. Members of Congress barricaded themselves in offices, and Vice President Mike Pence, a target of some in the mob, narrowly missed being caught in their midst.
By 56%-31%, those surveyed predict there will be more violence at the inauguration. By 70%-17%, they say America's democracy is weaker, not stronger, than it was four years ago.
Asked if they are proud to be an American, 62% say they are "extremely" or "very" proud. Twenty percent are "moderately" proud, and 16% are only "a little proud" or "not at all proud."
"I consider the actions by the people that did that treasonous to this country, that's how serious it is," says Shellie Belapurkar, 50, a nurse practitioner from Nashua, New Hampshire. A political independent, she voted for Biden.
Those who participated are "criminals," 7 in 10 of those surveyed say. Though almost no one said the protesters "acted appropriately," about 1 in 4 hedged their criticism. Twenty-four percent say they "went too far, but they had a point."
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"Honestly, I don't think it's serious at all," says Brook-lyn Parker, 28, a cosmetologist from Watertown, New York. A political independent, she voted for Trump. She calls the Capitol assault a "distraction," not a coup, and suggests that it was "kind of staged and planned in a way that meant for the supporters to look bad."
Five people, including a police officer who was caught up in the violence, were killed in the insurrection, and others were injured, including police. Law enforcement officials have found no evidence to support the "distraction" assertion, which has been circulated by some conspiracy theorists.
Federal authorities have made more than 50 arrests, and the number of investigations is close to topping 300.
Parker doesn't hold the president and his defiant speech to a rally before the assault responsible for what happened next. "He didn't say, 'Go bust into the Capitol,' so I don't think that was his fault at all," she says.
In the poll, more than a third of those surveyed, 36%, say Trump bears little or none of the blame for the assault, but a majority of Americans do hold him responsible. About half, 48%, say the president bears "a lot of blame" for the attack, and 14% say he bears some blame.
Nicholas Williams, 24, a Democrat from Nashville who voted for Biden, says he wasn't surprised when it happened. "It's something that escalated slowly over four years because of Trump's repeated lies," the maintenance technician says.
A small majority supports removing Trump from office. Among those, 6 in 10 endorse impeachment. In a bipartisan vote, the House approved an article of impeachment last week charging Trump with "incitement to Insurrection." The Senate trial isn't likely to begin until after Biden's inauguration.
"Obviously, he's going to be out of office ... but it was good to kind of just send a message, and especially for democracy," says Jonathan Muteba, 28, an engineer from Somerville, Massachusetts. A Democrat, he voted for Biden. "It's basically saying that no one is above the law and there's consequences for your actions."
There is some skepticism about the value of impeachment once Trump has left office. Though 42% call congressional action "necessary to preserve democracy," 25% say it is a "distraction from other important legislative priorities," and 26% call it a waste of time.
The dominant emotion? 'Worried'
Trump's refusal to concede the election and the violence that followed have robbed Biden of some of the good feeling that new presidents typically enjoy.
One in three voters, 32%, say Biden was not legitimately elected president. "There's overwhelming evidence of fraud," insists Renee Blum, 67, a software consultant from Stillwater, Minnesota. "How can you trust anything after that?"
The accusation of widespread voter fraud, pressed by Trump, has been repeatedly dismissed by the courts (in some instances by Trump-appointed judges), rejected by Republican and Democratic state election officials and found to be without merit by independent fact checkers.
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In the poll, 64% say Biden was legitimately elected, just 2 percentage points higher than in December.
Approval of the job Biden has done since the election dipped a bit since December, down 5 points to 46%, although his disapproval also dropped 2 points, to 29%. One in four, 24%, say they are undecided.
Many Americans are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the new president. Asked how they feel about his presidency, regardless of how they voted, precisely half chose a positive emotion; 26% say "excited" and 24% "good." The biggest share, 36%, say they feel "worried," and 6% say "angry."
"I don't see people ever rebuking Trump's ideology," says Williams, the Biden voter from Nashville. He's hopeful but not convinced that Biden's call for bipartisanship will prevail. "Unless that actually works," he says, "I don't ever see things becoming closer to normality."
Derek Tonkin, 40, a Trump voter from Waco, Texas, isn't sure what's ahead. "I hope that doesn't happen again," the IT worker says of the Capitol violence. "But the way things are right now, everybody's just so angry. And it's hard to tell what's going to happen next."