WASHINGTON (Circa) — A new poll shows North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is viewed more favorably by Republicans than Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the wake of President Donald Trump’s summit with Kim, a finding experts say illustrates the depths of political partisanship and the contempt voters in both parties have for leadership on the opposing side.
The poll, conducted for The Daily Beast by Ipsos, surveyed about 1,000 adults in the days after Trump and Kim met in Singapore on June 12 and signed a statement in which Kim agreed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Overall, only 12 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of Kim, but among Republicans, 19 percent offered favorable views.
Comparatively, only 17 percent of Republicans view Pelosi favorably and 72 percent have negative opinions of her. Among all respondents, Pelosi’s favorability was 29 percent, with 47 percent unfavorable.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s overall favorability was 20 percent, with 43 percent viewing him negatively. However, more Democrats had favorable opinions of him than they did of Kim.
“It’s actually lower than I would have guessed,” said Stephanie Martin, an assistant professor of corporate communication at Southern Methodist University and editor of “Columns to Characters: The Presidency and the Press Enter the Digital Age,” of Republican favorability of Kim. GOP support for Trump and his agenda is extremely high at the moment, and much of the party tends to take its cues from him.
Trump has been effusive in his praise of Kim since the Singapore meeting,dismissing questions about rampant human rights abuses in North Korea andexpressing certainty that Kim will adhere to their agreement, unlike Pyongyang’s many past denuclearization commitments.
While nearly 20 percent of Republicans holding a favorable view of Kim is not an enormous contingent, the figure suggests a significant shift in attitudes about the Kim regime since President Trump stopped threatening fire and fury and started negotiating for peace.
According to an August 2017 Economist/YouGov poll, only 6 percent of Republicans and 9 percent of Democrats had favorable opinions of Kim Jong Un. In the same survey, 5 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Democrats said they consider North Korea an ally or friend to the U.S. In a February 2018 Gallup poll, 6 percent of Americans viewed North Korea favorably, and 51 percent said the country is the greatest enemy of the U.S.
According to Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of advertising at Boston University and a former political media consultant, the portrayal of Kim in the media has been drastically more upbeat in recent weeks than it was at the height of tensions earlier this year. Those who are not focused on the horrors of Kim’s government may come away with a more positive perception.
“That could be people who don’t really pay a lot of attention and think, ‘Well, the relationship is getting better,’” he said. “Go back a month ago, two months ago, it was going to be the start of World War III… To not have the end of the world imminent, some people might think favorably of Kim.”
Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
Michael Cornfield, an associate professor at George Washington University and co-director of the GW Politics Poll, cautioned against reading too much into public opinion data on Kim collected at a dramatic moment such as this.
“Opinions of Kim are less stable than of Pelosi--and McConnell, Ryan, and Schumer, for that matter--because the North Korea story is undergoing major gyrations and Americans have less familiarity with the prospect of a new relationship between the U.S. and North Korea than they do with partisan conflict at home,” he said.
After last week’s summit, fears of the North Korean threat appear to have eased among Republicans. According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, the percentage of Americans who believe North Korea will denuclearize has risen from 30 percent to 41 percent, with 68 percent of Republicans calling it likely, up from 39 percent in April.
In the same poll, about half of Republicans called the summit a success for the U.S., but less than 20 percent of Democrats and independents agreed. Republicans were also far more likely to believe the summit reduced the chances of war than Democrats.
The partisan divide in assessments of the Singapore summit is stark, if not surprising.
“I don’t know that the story is that 19 percent [of Republicans] have a favorable view of Kim so much as the distinction once again between Republicans and Democrats on whether or not the summit was a success and has a possibility of significantly altering North Korea’s behavior,” Martin said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen an even bigger change in attitude among Republicans since President Trump began speaking positively of him and promoting better relations. Democrats, meanwhile, have grown more hostile toward Putin and Russia as a result of anger over its interference in the 2016 election.
After the annexation of Crimea, a July 2014 YouGov poll registered Putin’s net favorability among Democrats at -54 and Republicans at -66. In December 2016, Putin’s net favorability with Democrats was -62, but it had jumped to -10 with Republicans. The same poll indicated Putin was more popular with Trump supporters than President Obama.
Similarly, Republican attitudes toward WikiLeaks flipped from the days when the group was leaking national security secrets in 2013 to its disclosure of Democratic campaign communications in 2016. In YouGov/Economist polling, Republican net favorability of WikiLeaks went from -47 in June 2013 to +27 in December 2016. Among Democrats, its net favorability fell from -3 to -28 in that timespan.
I hope people are looking at the disgraceful behavior of Hillary Clinton as exposed by WikiLeaks. She is unfit to run.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
Political partisans favoring foreign dictators over leaders of the other party is not a new phenomenon, but it is still an alarming one and a reflection of how viscerally partisanship shapes public opinion.
“More and more, we identify with parties the way we identify with sports teams,” Martin said.
People like to believe they are motivated by issues, but according to Martin, political scientists are discovering voters are driven more by identity. This becomes apparent as someone like Trump leads the Republican Party away from historical GOP stances on issues like trade and much of the party follows him toward an embrace of tariffs and protectionism.
“If a player who used to play for your most hated enemy is traded to your team…now you root for them,” she said.
In the later years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Gallup polls indicated Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuelan socialist Hugo Chavez were viewed more favorably by Democrats than Bush.
“Everything is so partisan and everything is seen through a partisan lens,” Berkovitz said. “Nothing’s surprising when it comes to what these highly polarized voters think of these world leaders, or American leaders for that matter.”
The Republican Party had a great night. Tremendous voter energy and excitement, and all candidates are those who have a great chance of winning in November. The Economy is sooo strong, and with Nancy Pelosi wanting to end the big Tax Cuts and Raise Taxes, why wouldn’t we win?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018
Pelosi is far from alone among congressional leaders in being widely despised by the other side, but Republicans view her as a particularly potent symbol to show midterm voters what Democratic control of Congress would mean. She has already been featured in attack ads against Democrats in special elections, and President Trump has tweeted about her more than a dozen times this year.
“Get the vote out in California today for Rep. Kevin McCarthy and all of the great GOP candidates for Congress. Keep our country out of the hands of High Tax, High Crime Nancy Pelosi,” he wrote on the day of the California primaries earlier this month.
Pelosi has not curtailed her fundraising efforts or shown any sign she would give up the gavel if Democrats regained the majority, but she has acknowledged some candidates in competitive districts may have to disown her for the party to secure a majority.
"I think if they have to do that to win an election ... I'm all for winning,” she said at an April Politico event.
Polls provide some evidence to support the Republican strategy. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found 45 percent of registered voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supports Pelosi to become speaker of the House, compared to only 21 percent who say they would be more likely to back such a candidate.
However, the NBC/WSJ poll indicated President Trump’s endorsement of GOP candidates could have a similar effect. About four in ten respondents said they would be uncomfortable voting for a candidate endorsed by Trump, while 12 percent said they would be enthusiastic about doing so.
“Republicans and Democrats thinking little of the opposite party's leadership is a generation-long pattern,” Cornfield said.
Another recent survey showed more than twice as many Americans want another Democrat to lead the party in the House. According to a May Economist/YouGov poll, 15 percent of respondents supported Pelosi and 32 percent favored “some other Democrat.” The remaining 54 percent either did not know which would be preferable or did not care.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer faced a similar mix of lukewarm support and ambivalence. About a quarter of respondents said they would prefer another Democrat head the party in the Senate, compared to 17 percent who want Schumer to remain at the top.
Rep. Lou Barletta, a Great Republican from Pennsylvania who was one of my very earliest supporters, will make a FANTASTIC Senator. He is strong & smart, loves Pennsylvania & loves our Country! Voted for Tax Cuts, unlike Bob Casey, who listened to Tax Hikers Pelosi and Schumer!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 11, 2018
If Democrats acceded to public opinion and replaced Pelosi or Schumer with younger leaders, experts expect their favorability numbers would quickly plummet to similar levels.
“Because of party identification and the impulse among voters to just loathe the leaders of the other party, the leaders are truly akin to the quarterback of the team you’re not for or the pitcher for the other team in the World Series,” Martin said. “Whoever emerges as the Democratic leader will in short order be the new Nancy Pelosi and will carry the same baggage.”
That animosity becomes somewhat self-perpetuating, as voters’ hatred of the other side makes it harder for their leaders to work across the aisle and the resulting inaction makes voters even angrier.
“It’s why you have terrible gridlock in Washington and it exacerbates the partisanship of the voters,” Berkovitz said. “Voters tend to vote against someone rather than for someone, and then the members in Washington, they have to march to the drum of their constituents.”
According to Martin, this dynamic manifests in issues like gun control where restrictions like universal background checks are overwhelmingly supported by Americans, but Congress cannot act.
“You have voters who identify as Republican perceive that as a win for Democrats,” she said. “Since that identity is more important to them, they ultimately will want to deny Democrats the win more than they want the issue taken care of.”
As lawmakers struggle to find a politically palatable consensus on a way to address immigrant family separations at the southern border, the gaping partisan divide may again leave them at an impasse.