Fact check: Claims of nationwide protests affecting Biden's poll performance lack context

Chelsey Cox, USA TODAY
·8 min read

The claim: Nationwide 'rioting' stopped after Biden began polling badly

Protest-related violence has lessened in recent months because of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's performance in election polls, says a social media claim.

Conservative conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich appeared to imply social justice demonstrators are either pro-Biden or that Biden himself has some control over demonstrations in an Oct. 9 post that received 4,000 shares.

"After polling showed the riots were going to cost Biden the election, the totally organic, nationwide rioting stopped," he wrote.

Cernovich is a right-wing "provocateur," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. He gained prominence from #Gamergate, a coordinated harassment campaign against women in the gaming industry, and was a foremost spreader of the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory. Believers in Pizzagate thought former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ran a child sex trafficking ring from the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.

Cernovich reached out to USA TODAY but did not provide additional context for his claim.

His post is one of various condemnations against protests throughout the country following incidents of police brutality.

Roughly two-thirds of respondents to a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll said they believed protesters and counter-protesters have laid siege to U.S. cities.

A relationship between 'riots' and polling?

Some political analysts observed a drop in Biden's polling numbers from early summer — when social justice protests were widespread — to late August.

The Aug. 23 shooting by police of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, incited protests throughout the city. Two people died days later when 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse fired into a crowd of demonstrators. Rittenhouse was among several armed counter-protesters from out of state, USA TODAY reported.

Blake is recovering in a rehabilitation center. Rittenhouse has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide, attempted intentional homicide and a misdemeanor charge of underage firearm possession, according to USA TODAY.

Biden's lead over President Donald Trump began rising shortly after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, reaching double-digits in June yet ebbing toward the end of summer, according to CNN's Harry Enten.

"One reason Biden's advantage might have been cut is that the peaceful protests of early summer have faded from the news and the importance of race relations has dropped down on the list of Americans' most important problems," Enten wrote on Aug. 29.

An Aug. 26 piece in the New York Times documented how violent outbreaks among protests in Kenosha influenced voting attitudes in Wisconsin.

"The politically calculated warnings of President Trump and the Republican Party about chaos enveloping America should Democrats win in November are reverberating among some people in Kenosha,..." reporters Sabrina Tavernise and Ellen Almer Durston wrote.

CNN anchor Don Lemon delivered perhaps the most prominent critique of the Democratic candidates' response to Kenosha while covering the Republican National Convention on Aug.26. He suggested incidents of rioting correlated with negative polling outcomes for Biden, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"The rioting has to stop. ... It’s showing up in the polling. It’s showing up in focus groups. It is the only thing — it is the only thing — right now that is sticking,” Lemon said.

Pundits picked apart Lemon's comments.

Becket Adams, commentary writer for conservative-leaning Washington Examiner, accused the CNN anchor of bias toward the Democratic Party.

"The cable news host who bills himself as a serious, objective journalist opposes the anti-police riots now because he is worried that the destruction and mayhem will hurt the Democratic Party’s electoral chances in the fall," Adams wrote. "How is that for a principled stand?"

James S. Robbins, a special assistant in the office of the defense secretary during the George W. Bush administration, also referenced Lemon's statements in an Aug. 31 opinion piece in USA TODAY.

"CNN's Don Lemon bemoaned the fact that the rioting is 'showing up in the polling' and 'showing up in focus groups,'" he wrote.

But there is evidence to support Lemon's claim, Robbins said. He cited a Civiqs poll of support for the movement among registered voters. Approval for the Black Lives Matter movement "peaked" on June 3 and, according to Robbins, has fallen ever since.

"Of course BLM is not synonymous with rioting," he wrote. "But this trend may show the extent to which the issues have been conflated in the public mind."

Attitudes about BLM

A study by the Pew Research Center found a decline in support for the BLM movement from June to September among white and Hispanic adults. But percentages remained virtually unchanged among Black and Asian adults, most of whom support the movement.

A majority of Democrats (88%) supported BLM in June as opposed to 16% of Republicans, according to Pew.

In his article, Robbins also accused Biden of coming out against demands to defund the police because it doesn't poll well, even among African-Americans.

Nearly equal percentages of African-Americans polled said they wanted the police to spend more time in their neighborhoods (20%) as opposed to less (19%), according to the Gallup poll referenced in Robbins article.

Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for Biden, said the Democratic nominee does not believe that police should be defunded, USA TODAY reported.

What Biden-Trump polling shows

Since May 30, Biden has maintained a lead of at least 5 points over Trump in general election polling, according to Real Clear Politics. Biden led Trump by 7.8 points on Aug. 24 — the day after Jacob Blake's shooting — and by 7.2 points on Aug. 11, one of the last days of rioting in Portland, Oregon, according to a report by the US Crisis Monitor.

On Sept. 23, the attorney general of Kentucky announced a grand jury's decision to indict former Louisville officer Brett Hankinson, one of three police officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, on three felony counts of wanton endangerment for firing into a neighboring apartment, USA TODAY reported. Two Louisville police officers were shot in the ensuing protest.

The shootings marked one of the last major outbursts tied to social justice protests. Biden polled 7.1 points over Trump that day.

Did 'rioting' stop after polls took a downturn?

Outbreaks of violence occurred in less than 10% of areas of protest, according to the US Crisis Monitor. And though more people are describing incidents of violence in cities like Portland and Kenosha as riots, according to a Fox News poll taken Sept. 7-10, more than 93% of demonstrations associated with BLM are peaceful.

Biden's unfavorable rating among registered voters is the lowest it's been since March 2019, according to a Civiqs poll. The former vice president polled 49% unfavorable, 46% favorable, with 5% unsure, on Oct. 19. This is nearly unchanged from the Aug. 26 GOP convention. Biden's highest unfavorable rating was 59% on Feb. 10, the date of the New Hampshire primary, according to Civiqs.

Our ruling: Missing context

We rate this claim MISSING CONTEXT, based on our research. Biden has maintained a lead over Trump since late May. His current favorable rating has barely changed from Aug. 26, around the time some analysts observed a possible relationship between protests in Kenosha and polling numbers. A connection between "totally organic, nationwide rioting" and Biden's poll numbers cannot be determined.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Claim that protests affect Biden in polls lack context