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How did a polarized America react to Orlando?

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

As Americans grieved after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last month, Democrats and Republicans reacted quite differently to the news, according to a new “Mood of the Nation” poll developed by Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy. Our findings indicate that while this tragedy brought us together as a nation, it also demonstrates the extent that the issue of gun control has come to divide our political parties.

The “Mood of the Nation Poll” is a new periodic scientific poll that assesses opinions by posing a series of open-ended questions to a representative sample of 1,000 Americans. It allows ordinary citizens to tell us what is on their minds, without being restricted to a small number of predetermined answers. The first poll of its kind, we asked 500 people in our sample to tell us what it was in the news that made them angry and what made them proud; we asked another 500 people what in the news made them ashamed or what made them hopeful.

Democrats and Republicans responded differently

When we fielded our study between June 15-22, many were still thinking about the shocking events that occurred in the early morning hours of June 12. Even though our poll did not ask them directly about the mass shooting in Orlando, we were not surprised to find that many people were angry about it.

However, Democrats were more likely to be angry about the shooting then were Republicans; 42 percent of Democrats specifically mentioned the Orlando shooting when asked about what made them angry in the news, compared with only 27 percent of Republicans. But this was not the only reaction.

Why did the shooting resonate so much more strongly with Democrats?

A careful reading of Democrats’ answers show that many were angry because they see the tragedy as another instance of a society where firearms are too easily acquired. Many Democrats who mentioned Orlando talked about the failure to better control guns, the political strength of the NRA and the refusal of the Republican leadership to support greater regulation of firearms.

For example, as one 27-year-old man from Pennsylvania put it, “another mass shooting and NRA members standing in the way of sensible gun control,” while a 24-year-old man from Illinois wrote that he was very ashamed because “the mass killings in Orlando that should’ve been much more prevantable [sic] if not for republican politicians being bought by the NRA.”

Of course, this is far from the only thing about the shooting that made Democrats angry and ashamed. Many simply mentioned that the shooting made them angry without elaboration. Others were angered by Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s response.

In our poll, we did not find a single Republican who was angry about insufficient gun control. Republican respondents were angry at the media’s coverage of the event, at Democrat’s perceived efforts to use this tragedy to push for gun control and at the failure of both to focus on the fact that the shooter was a radical Muslim.

Many expressed a sentiment similar to this 51-year-old woman from California who said what made her angry was “Obama and Democrats blaming a terrorist attack on guns rather than fanatical or radical religious ideology.”

A 41-year-old man from California said he was angry about the “Orlando shooting and law abiding people getting punished for it by liberals.” And many reflected the opinion of this 26-year-old man from Iowa who was angry about the “media’s continued decision to ignore the fact he pledged his allegiance to ISIS.”

Response to Orlando elicits pride

Our poll highlighted the positive emotions too — specifically pride and hope. Here there was more unanimity. Republicans and Democrats alike were proud of the ways that their fellow citizens responded to the shooting — the outpourings of support for victims and their families, for blood donors and first responders.

But here, as well, poll results show that Democrats and Republicans express their pride in different ways.

Republicans tended to focus on individual acts of generosity and bravery, and the responses of businesses and churches. Many referred to first responders, including the former marine who led several nightclub patrons to safety. Several also lauded Chik-fil-A for donating food; one mentioned blood donation drives by churches.

Independents and Democrats, in contrast, often mentioned support for the LGBT community specifically. For instance, a 49-year-old Independent from Maryland said he was proud of the “Overwhelming Positive, and United Support of The LGBT Community after the Orlando Terrorist Attacks!” and a 62-year-old Democratic woman from Illinois said she was proud of how people “in the US and around the world” have “supported the LGBT community since the Orlando massacre.”

Democrats also tended to use a more communal language — many said they were proud of how the country has “come together,” how Americans were “pulling together,” of “examples of solidarity,” and not merely generosity, but “kindness and respect” that Americans showed to the victims.

The mass shooting wasn’t the only thing to make people’s blood boil in June, though. A small number were upset about the young child killed by an alligator, and many by the nastiness of the presidential campaign and by individual candidates.

The McCourtney “Mood of the Nation Poll” shows that the fault lines in our political culture is manifest even in our in reactions to a tragic event by allowing respondents to tell us their feelings in their own words. These differences may be fueled by political rhetoric or heightened by the climate of a tough presidential campaign, but they are nevertheless real. Even in the wake of unspeakable horror, they manifest how deep and abiding are the barriers to unity.

Michael Berkman is director of McCourtney Institute of Democracy at Penn State. Eric Plutzer is director of the McCourtney Mood of the Nation Poll.

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