The U.S. has experienced many riots in several cities over the past several weeks and months. Which presidential candidate's electoral prospects are most assisted by these events?

To clarify: I'm not seeking opinions. I'm seeking polling data and other evidence supported by fact-based reasoning.

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    And how would we establish that riots "help" a candidate? Even if there's poll that says "58% of Americans think that candidate X is helped by riots more than candidate Y", it's still a meaningless statistic, so somewhat unlikely to be relevant or polled, unless some pollster decides to focus on the perception of whom rioters help... Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 1:57
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    @Fizz: Riots would help a candidate if their existence and persistence increases the odds of that candidate being elected. It's quite common for polling data to infer this type of information. ..."unless some pollster decides to focus on the perception of whom rioters help"... Sounds like you answered your own question. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 2:00
  • 3
    @Fizz: That seems to be a matter of subjective opinion upon which we appear to disagree. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 2:02
  • 5
    Yes, the moon is made of blue cheese. Subject to opinion disagreement. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 2:03
  • 4
    This Q. might be answerable if it were asked in 6 months.
    – agc
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 3:39

2 Answers 2


The best thing that would count as data here (as far as I know) are some historical analogies which posit that Nixon won the presidency due to the 1968 riots. YMMV how factual that is (besides the analogy), but there are some academic studies in that direction (see last para[s] in this quote).

“Trump very clearly has decided to build his re-election campaign strategy around that of Richard Nixon and his 1968 campaign. The scene when he went to St John’s church, demonstrating ‘law and order’ as he went, says to me that he has looked at the Nixon victory in 68 and said, ‘This can be one of my paths to re-election.’” [...]

Trump’s mimicry of Nixon is contained right there in the phrase “law and order” – rhetoric that had been familiar in the deep south for decades but which Nixon brought for the first time to the national political stage. In his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination in Miami in August 1968, just a few weeks before Rather was decked in Chicago, Nixon addressed himself to the “forgotten Americans”, the “voice of the great majority – the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators”.

He might just have said: “Whites.”

Nixon spoke luridly about the state of the country, with its “cities enveloped in smoke and flame”. Unveiling the “law and order” catchphrase that was to define his presidential campaign, he vowed to open a new front against the “filth peddlers and the narcotics peddlers who are corrupting this country”. [...]

Nixon’s promise to crack down on the protests was calculated. “He recognised he couldn’t come out and say, ‘I want to dominate black people’, but he could say ‘law and order’. It was a very effective linguistic strategy that worked in 68 and for a long time after.”

Just how effective it was for Nixon is shown in an ingenious piece of academic research by Omar Wasow of Princeton University. Wasow wanted to measure the impact of the violent protests following King’s death on white voting patterns in the 1968 election, so he compared election results from largely white constituencies that had been in close proximity to scenes of rioting with similar white areas where there had been rainfall on the night of the unrest – a well-established dampener of protest passions.

He found a remarkable swing of up to 8% among white voters against Nixon’s Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey, in those areas where there had been no rain that night. Wasow concluded that, writ large, Nixon’s exploitation of the protests through his “law and order” dog-whistling had essentially handed him the presidency.

So, if it doesn't rain, Trump wins. YMMV.

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    The key difference here being that Nixon was not the incumbent. It’s a much simpler argument to say “look at the chaos, we need change” than “look at the chaos, re-elect me”. It might still work, but it’s definitely a harder needle to thread than what Nixon tried
    – divibisan
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 18:55
  • @divibisan: fair point, and the article actually cites some other experts making that point, but alas without any data (presented in there). I suppose that dandavis' answer is some such [counter]model. The issue however is complicated by the fact that Trump can blame the "Democrat run cities" and he does. So it's not totally clear that incumbency works here exactly as in a more monolithic political system. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 21:53
  • Comments deleted. Please note that this is not the place to debate who should win the US presidential election in your opinion.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 8:00

According to the Keys to the White House prediction model, widespread riots would hurt the chances of the incumbent, currently Donald Trump. You can debate the utility of the model or the objectiveness of the keys, but the keys tend to point at common indications of executive success and failure.

Key #8 is

Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term

Intuitively, it seems challenging for the US's chief law enforcement officer to run on "Law and Order" if communities across the country were experiencing violent riots. Lots of riots would make this statement false, which takes a key away from the incumbent administration, which is how the model is scored. It's a strange grading method compared to more objective polls, but it usually works.

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    "Intuitively, it seems challenging for the US's chief law enforcement officer to run on "Law and Order" if communities across the country were experiencing violent riots." I think the counter analysis is: 1. Our federalist system vests power in local police (not the U.S. President) for dealing with local riots. 2. All of these cities being overrun by riots are run by Democrats. 3. All of the rioters are Democrats. Therefore, if you want law and order, elect a Republican. Wouldn't you agree that's the counter argument to the "riots are the fault of the President" argument you're advancing? Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 6:42
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    @RainWillow It's a counter argument, or maybe just a blame game, but I don't think persuadable/swing voters are actually very cognizant about local governments in general, they think more in terms of like or dislike. They also tend to consume more national media than local, so there's a better chance of them recognizing Trump then their mayor or chief of police. The rioters obviously want change, and people who don't like riots want change, and when both sides of a divisive issue want change, it's a tough time to be an incumbent.
    – dandavis
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 6:51
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    I think your arguments are the political analysis of the Democrats. I think the counter argument I put forward is the analysis of the Republicans. I think the election will tell us which analysis was correct. I will also say this, Biden seems to be changing his strategy lately and now seeks to engage more. I hear he's doing some local rallies. He must have some new information about the effectiveness of his basement strategy to make these changes. I'm thinking that might have something to do with the riots. But that's just intuition and speculation at this point. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 7:13

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