Extreme elements at both ends of spectrum could be aggravating some tensions

ST. LEO, FL – Most Americans—eight in 10 according to the most recent survey from the Saint Leo University Polling Institute—say the country is more divided as a nation than ever before, just as a March survey from the institute found (http://polls.saintleo.edu). Floridians may feel a bit better than the national counterparts, but not much.

The results come from a wide-ranging survey of 1,000 adults nationwide, taken from September 10 through September 16. The same questions about national mood were also asked by the polling institute in March, using the same online technology, and allowing for comparison. While the national survey was being conducted, the polling institute also asked a separate sample of 500 adult residents of Florida the same questions. Florida is the home of the polling institute and its parent, Saint Leo University, as well as a politically significant state in elections.

Poll respondents were asked to respond to statements on a number of political and cultural topics including assessments of public mood, the state of democracy, political discourse, and permissible conduct during demonstrations. Respondents were asked in each case whether they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed with each statement, or whether they didn’t know.

The percent of those nationally who say they strongly agree or somewhat agree with the statement “We are more divided as a nation than ever before” was 82.1 percent, just as in March. And more respondents strongly agreed with the statement, 47.2 percent, than somewhat agreed, which was 34.9 percent. The breakdown was very close in March to the recent survey, though in March 50 percent strongly agreed, about 3 percentage points higher.

The situation in Florida is that 78.9 percent in September reported agreeing that the country is as divided as ever, compared to 80.5 percent in March. While that could be a sign of slight improvement, the gap might also be attributed to normal amounts of low, expected statistical error.

A combined 67 percent of respondents in September say they see democracy “slipping away in the United States”—no diminishment from the 65.2 reported in March. In Florida, 66.3 percent showed some level of agreement, compared to 64.1 percent in March.

A total of 54.4 percent nationally think the White House “appears to be moving us toward authoritarianism” compared to 51.9 percent in March. In Florida, the recent results showed 48.4 percent agreement with that statement, compared to 50.3 percent in March.

Just 48 percent nationally, and 47 percent in Florida, reported in both March and September surveys that they trust mainstream news media such as major broadcast networks, the Associated Press, and newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post to accurately cover American politics.

About three in 10 nationally trust statements from the White House, a continuation from March. Florida, the results were a bit higher, at 35.7 percent in September, compared to 38.5 percent in March.

Speech and Actions
Frank Orlando, director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute and a political scientist at the university, was just as interested in respondents’ opinions on speech and actions in demonstrations.

Nationally, 44.3 percent strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “not all free speech patterns should be protected.” The sum was 35.5 percent in March. In Florida, the most recent level of agreement was 42.4 percent, just nudging above the 41.4 percent recorded in March.

“A jump in some people believing that free speech patterns should be curtailed is occurring among both Republicans and Democrats,” Orlando said after the confirming the overall results with respondents who also reported they are aligned with one of the parties.

There is some “frightening” data that suggests more people—though still a minority–are willing to tolerate or commit actual violence or property damage during political demonstrations, Orlando said.

The survey presented two statements for people to react to: “At times, physical violence during demonstrations is justified.” The national results showed 20.7 percent somewhat or strongly agreed, compared to 17.5 percent in March. In Florida, 22.5 percent somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement, compared to 18.7 percent in March.

To put it another way, the percentages roughly equal one in five adults.

Survey respondents were also presented with the statement: “At times, property damage during demonstrations is justified. Nationally, 20.7 percent somewhat or strongly agreed in the September survey (precisely matching the results from the prior question on violence), up from 14.3 percent in March. In Florida, 18.9 percent said property damage might be justified in the September poll, compared to 16 percent in March.

“It seems as though Alt-Right neo-Nazi groups and Antifa are engaged in a sort of feedback loop where they are enabling each other to get stronger and stronger,” Orlando suggested.

Orlando found more by cross-referencing the results with major party affiliations reported in the survey. “Independents are the least likely to support violence and property damage, and the most likely to support all types of speech.”

Meanwhile, more people continue to feel “very optimistic about reducing political discord,” despite divisions in their own communities. In the national survey, 48.1 percent strongly or somewhat agreed with that in September polling, compared to 49.4 percent in March. In Florida, those in agreement came to 53.2 percent in September—just over half—compared to 47.9 percent in March.

(See a separate press release on public opinions on dealing with Confederate symbols and treatment of Confederate history.)

Media contacts:
Jo-Ann Johnston, Saint Leo University, University Communications jo-ann.johnston@saintleo.edu or (352) 588-8237 or (352) 467-0843 (cell/text).     

Mary McCoy, Saint Leo University, University Communications mary.mccoy02@saintleo.edu or (352) 588-7118 or (813) 610-8416 (cell/text).


More About Our Research
METHODOLOGY: The poll sampled opinions of 1,000 approximately proportional to state population contribution nationwide. The survey was conducted September 10-16, 2017. All surveys were conducted using an online survey instrument. The poll has a +/- 3.0 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level on a composite basis.

In Florida, 500 distinct respondents approximately proportional to state population contribution were surveyed also from September 10-16, 2017.The results have a margin for error of +/-4.5% at a 95% confidence level.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts its surveys using cutting-edge online methodology, which is rapidly transforming the field of survey research. The sample is drawn from large online panels, which allow for random selections that reflect accurate cross sections of all demographic groups. Online methodology has the additional advantage of allowing participants to respond to the survey at a time, place, and speed that is convenient to them, which may result in more thoughtful answers. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute develops the questionnaires, administers the surveys, and conducts analysis of the results. Panel participants typically receive a token incentive—usually $1 deposited into an iTunes or Amazon account—for their participation.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey results about national and Florida politics, public policy issues, Pope Francis’ popularity, and other topics, can be found here: http://polls.saintleo.edu. You can also follow the institute on Twitter @saintleopolls.


About Saint Leo University
Saint Leo University (www.saintleo.edu) is a modern Catholic teaching university that is firmly grounded in the liberal arts tradition and the timeless Benedictine wisdom that seeks balanced growth of mind, body, and spirit. The Saint Leo University of today is a private, nonprofit institution that creates hospitable learning communities wherever students want to be or need to be, whether that is a campus classroom, a web-based environment, an employer’s worksite, a military base, or an office park. Saint Leo welcomes people of all faiths and of no religious affiliation, and encourages learners of all generations. The university is committed to providing educational opportunities to the nation’s armed forces, veterans, and their families. Saint Leo is regionally accredited to award degrees ranging from the associate to the doctorate, and the faculty and staff guide all students to develop their capacities for critical thinking, moral reflection, and lifelong learning and leadership.

The university remains the faithful steward of the beautiful lakeside University Campus in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, where its founding monks created the first Catholic college in the state in 1889. Serving more than 13,000 students, Saint Leo has expanded to downtown Tampa, to other sites in Florida and beyond, and maintains a physical presence in seven states. The university provides highly respected online learning programs to students nationally and internationally. More than 90,000 alumni reside in all 50 states, in Washington, DC, in three U.S. territories, and in 76 countries.