As the nation continues to grapple with questions of racial justice, Americans are increasingly polarized, according to a new poll, with Republicans far less likely to support protests sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake than previous demonstrations.
More Americans support than oppose recent protests after the shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, according to the poll by the research firm Ipsos, provided exclusively to NPR.
But sharp divisions are emerging along racial and political party lines.
Two-thirds of Black respondents support the protests, compared to just over one-third of whites and less than half of Hispanics. The division among party affiliations is even more stark: Three out of four Democrats say they support the protests, compared to fewer than one in ten Republicans.
The poll of 1,008 U.S. adults was conducted August 28 to 31. The margin of error for the overall sample is 3 percentage points.
These divisions have become even more entrenched since the spring, when George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody sparked protests across the country. Nearly 45% of Republicans told Ipsos in June that they supported demonstrations against police brutality.
“There is a significant shift at the partisan level,” said Mallory Newall, a pollster at Ipsos, which has been tracking public opinion about racial justice protests for months. “You are seeing a certain segment of the population that is the Republican base responding to how the president is communicating around these issues.”
President Trump visited Kenosha on Tuesday, while former Vice President Joe Biden plans to travel there today. The two presidential candidates have offered dramatically differing views on the protests.
Trump met with police and toured a section of Kenosha damaged by rioting that followed the shooting of Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was left paralyzed, according to his family. The president called violence that erupted at the protests “domestic terrorism” and defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the young white man who’s accused of shooting and killing two protesters in Wisconsin.
Biden told reporters on Wednesday that protesting and free speech is a right, but denounced violence and looting. The former vice president again blamed President Trump for stoking division and violence for political gain.
About one-third of poll respondents said they didn’t have an opinion about how Trump and Biden have responded to protests and demonstrations taking place in Wisconsin and across the country following Blake’s shooting. The Ipsos poll took place before Trump’s visit to Kenosha.
“Amidst all of the rhetoric around this issue, a fair number of Americans remain at least somewhat ambivalent,” Newall said.
When poll respondents did register an opinion, only about one-quarter said they support President Trump’s response to the protests, according to Ipsos. That included just 6% of Democrats.
“He is adding a lot of gasoline to a fire that’s already kind of burning on its own,” said Laurie Dozier, a Democrat from Cleveland, Ohio.
“I think that he likes it. He likes exciting his base,” said Dozier, who is Black. “He thinks it’s good for his numbers. He’s all about the polling numbers.”
The president’s response to the protests has been overwhelmingly popular with one group: Republicans. Nearly 69% support him.
“I don’t believe what they’re doing is good for the Black community,” Edward Bluemel, a Republican from the Chicago suburbs, said about the protesters in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Bluemel, who is white, says it was “very excessive” for police officers to shoot Blake seven times in the back. But he blames Democratic mayors and governors, saying they allowed protests to become violent, echoing one of Trump’s frequent talking points.
“They’re out there rioting and looting and burning. It’s just like a crime spree,” Bluemel said. “I really believe that the Democrats, they’re letting this go. Just because there’s an election coming up, and it’ll make the Republicans look bad.”
Ipsos also asked poll respondents to rate how other political figures and institutions responded to the protests. More than four in ten people said they supported the response of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as NBA players who decided to boycott several playoff games last week in protest.
But here too, the reactions broke down along familiar partisan and racial lines, with few Republicans expressing support for how NBA players and Black Lives Matter responded compared to overwhelming support from Democrats.
A majority of respondents reported paying either a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of attention to Blake’s shooting; only 9% said they haven’t heard anything at all.
Still, when it came to the reactions of local officials — Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which is leading the investigation into Blake’s shooting — most respondents didn’t know how to rate their response.
The poll did reveal a few areas of agreement. For instance, three-quarters of all respondents said that violence and damage caused by some protesters discredits the goal of achieving racial justice.
On his visit to Kenosha this week, President Trump denied that there is systemic racism in U.S. institutions.
But the Ipsos poll found that a majority of Americans disagree. More than half of respondents said racism is built into the U.S. economy, schools and police departments. And only 30% agreed that “America is not a racist country.”
When asked about the future, a large majority of whites and Republicans say it’s likely that police treatment of Blacks will improve in coming years. But Black respondents are much more pessimistic; two out of three say that is not likely to happen.