President Trump has split the country over NFL protests during the national anthem; that seems to be the consensus takeaway from some new polls. A CNN survey, for instance, finds people think the players are doing the “wrong thing” by a 49-to-43 margin.
But that kind of misses the point, for two reasons:
- Such protests are supposed to be unpopular.
- Trump appears to be going for something besides popularity — and he still might get it.
On the first point, it’s not surprising that the protests would be somewhat unpopular. Protests like this are almost by definition unpopular, because they need to provoke to gain attention. Kneeling during the national anthem became a big deal when Colin Kaepernick first did it because of how unusual — and arguably out-of-bounds — it was. A poll last year showed 72 percent of people thought Kaepernick’s protest was unpatriotic.
What’s notable here is that what the president said about the protests is actually more unpopular than the protest. Americans say Trump did the “wrong thing” by criticizing players for kneeling during the anthem by a 60-to-34 margin.
And in fact, as he often has, Trump seems to have only increased the ranks of his opponents, rallying nonwhites and Democrats to the protesters.
CNN asked two of the same questions that an HBO Real Sports/Marist College poll asked in September 2016. Back then, 42 percent of African Americans said players should be required to stand for the anthem; the new CNN poll has that number dropping to 13 percent.
Similarly, a Fox News poll from one year ago showed 44 percent of nonwhites thought it was “appropriate” for players to kneel in protest during the anthem. That number in a new Fox News poll this week? Sixty-one percent. While nonwhites narrowly labeled the protests inappropriate before, they now support them by a 2-to-1 margin. (The poll did not break down African Americans separately, because the sample size was too small.)
The CNN poll also showed a yawning partisan gap. While 71 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats said last year that players should be required to stand for the anthem, those numbers are now 84 percent and 23 percent. So a 35-point gap between the parties became a 61-point gap.
Now for Point No. 2: With all of that said, it’s too early to call Trump the loser in all of this. He was already focused like a laser on his base, and this is an instance in which that 35 percent to 40 percent of the country is going to be just fine with what he did.
And in fact, if that 35 to 40 percent punishes the NFL like Trump wants, Trump may have gotten exactly what he wanted. The CNN poll shows that fully 50 percent of Trump supporters and 45 percent of Republicans say they will boycott the NFL in some fashion — either by not attending games, not watching games on TV or not buying NFL products.
Caveat emptor: I am highly skeptical that anywhere near 50 percent of Trump supporters will actually follow through on this to any measurable extent. If you’re upset about the protests and a pollster asks you if you’ll boycott, it’s easy to say, “Heck yeah, I will!” And then you remember how much you love Tom Brady and how your Sundays just aren’t complete without him.
But if even 10 percent are really that upset and follow through? As I wrote before, the NFL has already been losing viewers and possibly attendance, which hurts the bottom line. And there are already anecdotal reports of a decline in single-game ticket sales, for example. To the extent Trump can hurt that bottom line even more, he’ll be able to claim something of a victory.
And he won’t care that 60 percent of the country doesn’t like that he stuck his nose where he did. After all, he’s been in that position plenty of times before.