Why are Trump-leaning voters concerned about the First Amendment?

Just to catch you up, several weeks ago, we started a daily poll of our panel on the 2020 election. We display the results on a real-time dashboard, which updates a series of charts on an hourly basis. We’ve had lots of requests for improvements, and the new ideas keep on flowing—we’ll be rolling changes out soon and will keep you updated.

Last time, we discussed the latest results of the Embee Mobile 2020 Presidential Tracking Poll and showed a race that, at the time, was a good bit different than the one we’ve been reading about in the press. In short, our conclusion was: it’s closer than it looks. Since that time, we have seen Biden open up more of a lead post-DNC; that said, Trump is now closing that gap post-RNC. We’ll continue to monitor in the days and weeks ahead. (Edit Sept 3: since originally writing this, we have seen a sharp surge for Trump, especially in the Midwest).

This time, we want to look a bit deeper into the data and see what voters care about in 2020. Upon doing so, we realized that the issues people care about are different than usual, and this is one of the reasons election 2020 is unlike any other in recent history. Specifically, we found that there is one surprisingly prevalent issue on the minds of voters today, especially among Trump supporters – First Amendment Rights.

But first, let’s set the context and take a look at all the issues that rank highly (i.e., was chosen as the top issue by at least 5% of respondents) with the three voter groups: Biden supporters, Trump supporters, and Undecided Voters. Based on data from August 27, here is what we’re seeing:

Looking at results across all respondents to our surveys, the combination of the Global Pandemic, Healthcare, and the Economy are predictably near the top of everyone’s minds—and each one of those is intricately connected these days. Among undecided voters, Education also ranks highly, which is presumably also related to the coronavirus and the impacts on in-person learning. Additionally, we see both Race Relations and National Security ranking highly, both of which, we assume, is related to the protests and, perhaps the perception of violence associated with the protests (Biden supporters seeing it as race-related, Trump supporters seeing it as security-related, and undecideds a mix of both). By and large, this is all fairly unsurprising.

What is surprising, on the other hand, is that just below those issues, there’s another issue that ranks very highly, particularly among Trump supporters and undecideds: First Amendment Rights. That’s despite there being many other, more typically “hot-button” issues to choose from. Among Trump supporters, in particular, First Amendment ranks higher than Immigration, Gun Policy and Reproductive Rights. Meanwhile, among Biden supporters, it ranks higher than LGBTQ Rights, Immigration, Election Integrity, and Gun Policy.

That’s right, none of the hot-button issues that have decided historic elections in the past even break 5%. A few years ago, we had an election about a Southern Border Wall and Immigration, and now despite all the talk about it—especially from the Trump campaign—Immigration is no longer a high-ranking issue for Trump Supporters. In addition, Reproductive Rights and Gun Policy have all but vanished as issues. First Amendment Rights rank as the fourth and fifth most important issues among Trump supporters and undecided voters, respectively. Even among All Voters, First Amendment Rights crack the 5% threshold at 5.6% and come in as the fifth most important issue.

What could explain this?

Are Trump supporters genuinely concerned that the government, a government currently lead by Trump, is infringing upon their right to express themselves?

If you remember your high school civics, you know that the First Amendment (like all the rights articulated in the Bill of Rights) does not grant rights to individuals, but rather limits the government from infringing upon those rights, which are inalienable and pre-exist the formation of governments. So, for example, the First Amendment protects people who are protesting government policy from any sort of censure or punishment by the government for expressing themselves. Given that, one could reasonably see why Biden-leaning supporters, who are more supportive of the current protests, might be concerned with the First Amendment.

However, Trump supporters and some undecideds rank this issue more highly than Biden supporters. What gives?

One possible explanation is that Trump-leaning voters have heightened concerns regarding their ability to speak “freely” because they feel that social media platforms, and perhaps also their friends and community, are increasingly fact-checking (or perhaps, “obstructing,” depending on your perspective) certain viewpoints. Of course, the First Amendment has nothing to do with ensuring someone the right to post a witty retort or frothy political opinion on a social media platform. Still, maybe some people effectively think of Facebook, Twitter, and others as government-like entities, and perhaps they even believe they should be subject to the same strictures afforded by the First Amendment. For others, perhaps it just reflects a general sense of unease with the degree to which there is corporate control of how people communicate online, or perhaps even more generally it is a stand-in for a feeling that there is too much “political correctness”.

Another possibility is that “First Amendment” was just the closest option there was, among the items in the list, for expressing frustrations with the current limits on daily life brought about by the pandemic — you have to wear a mask, you can’t see your friends or go to the movies and have a meal in a restaurant afterward.

In any case, it is clear that, in 2020, there is an unusually large population of people who feel that “My rights are being infringed upon” is one of the most critical issue facing voters today. And they see the First Amendment as the closest way to express that concern, even if it doesn’t directly connect to the problem they’re facing. By all appearances, Trump is appealing to that concern more than Biden, yet we haven’t seen much attention really given to this issue by either campaign.

The dynamic nature of politics in 2020 makes it hard to draw conclusions, so we won’t even attempt that. But with issues like the First Amendment trumping (pardon the pun) other concerns from years past, it underscores how hard it is to predict an outcome.

We’ll say it again: the race is still too close to call. There are still enough undecided voters out there for either candidate to win. And, voters who fear that their individuality is at risk may ultimately be the ones that sway the election.