NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (CN) — Republicans’ distrust of the media and their visceral fears of a Democratic win are at an all-time high, according to a study from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
“President Trump’s ‘war on the press’ appears to be working,” according to the study, released Tuesday and written by Wason Center Assistant Director Rachel Bitecofer. It shows that 57 percent of its respondents believe “major news organizations publish fake news stories for political purposes” but that number jumps to 86 percent among Republicans, with 45 percent of them rating the statement a 10 out of 10, its highest level of severity.
Nearly 70 percent of Democrats disagree.
Bitecofer said in an interview that trust of the press was in decline before Trump took office, but that number has shot up dramatically since January 2017.
“Nine out of 10 Republicans think the major news outlets — WSJ, NBC, CBS — intentionally publish fake news to hurt the president,” Bitecofer said.
“We get ‘number numb,’” she said, adding that her poll puts historic papers of record, Pulitzer prize-winning publicans, into the fake news category for the largest swath of the American public to date.
“It’s not because of some nut job on fringe radio,” she said. “It’s because for two years the man in the Oval Office, with the presidential seal, has been telling them it’s so.”
Bitecofer said she was astounded by another number from her polling as well: 71 percent of Republicans think the views held by Democrats “threaten the well-being of the country.”
She compared it to a 2014 Pew study that asked the same question and found that number to be 36 percent. In the five years since, Bitecofer said, that number has doubled.
“Donald Trump has thrown kerosene on that problem,” she said, pointing to his zealous rhetoric about any number of Democratic policies, no matter how inaccurately he states them.
Bitecofer was also surprised by the responses to an “experimental” question in the poll. To discern whether it was the “message or the messenger,” she found that rephrasing policy options by who was proposing them had a major impact.
Among the policy-related questions was one dealing with a CO2 emissions trading system, known as Cap and Trade, to address global warming.
When she asked Republicans how they felt about Cap and Trade as proposed by “some people,” about half of respondents supported the idea. If it was expressed as an idea by Democrats, that number dropped by about 9 points. But if Trump was the man behind the idea the number jumped to an overwhelming 88 percent.
“That means all the theories we have on public opinion right now are flawed,” she said, as people tend to believe their opinions on public policies are based on what they’ve learned. Instead, she suggested, “what the public is responding to is, ‘Do I trust this individual and if so I will follow them anywhere.’”
The poll was not all doom and gloom for Democrats. Bitecofer expanded on the public’s understanding of “independents” by trying to gauge so-called leaners, people who identify as independent but who will actually follow what party they lean with on Election Day.
She said leaners have long been lumped in broadly with independents, but should be looked at more closely, as they will be the ones who will decide in 2020 … and they aren’t too keen on the incumbent president.
According to the poll, 86 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats indicate they plan to vote for their party’s nominees, but Trump lags with “Republican leaners” at 60 percent while Democratic leaners sit at nearly 80 percent.
“We need to stop expecting them to do things that independent voters do, like switch their vote,” she said, noting that her study shrinks the traditional 30 percent or so of “independents” to about 10 percent who are truly undecided, or as Bitecofer calls them, “pure independents.”
“They might still be persuaded by a candidate or an argument,” she said, but noted that her numbers still favored someone new in the White House.
“Trump is losing pure independence in our poll. … They are breaking for the Democrats,” she said.