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Story highlights

Scott Jennings: Democrats need to stop taking President Trump's bait for the sake of their party

Polls show that most Americans agreed with him about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem

Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings is a CNN contributor and former special assistant to President George W. Bush. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

We’ve got enough data and anecdotes now to make an early call on whether President Donald Trump’s fight over NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem was a political winner for him. With a small and probably irrelevant caveat, it was.

Two national surveys with rigorous methodologies show Americans are opposed to kneeling during the National Anthem:

A Fox News poll found 55% of Americans saying kneeling is inappropriate.

– The most recent CNN/SSRS poll of adults found 49% saying the players are doing the wrong thing, versus 43% who say they are doing the right thing. Almost one-quarter of American adults said they planned to personally boycott NFL games, broadcasts and products because of the protests.

Scott Jennings
courtesy of Scott Jennings
Scott Jennings

Inside the CNN poll, Trump got what he wanted: More Republicans (87%) and Independents (48%) sided with him than not. Heck, even 21% of Democrats are with him on the NFL issue. Even 24% of people who disapprove of the job he’s doing overall see this issue his way.

(A bevy of other surveys of varying methodologies have also found clear majorities agreeing with Trump).

Anecdotally, anger over the protests continues to bubble. DirecTV, the satellite television provider with the Sunday Ticket NFL package, is offering refunds to fans offended by the protests. According to The Wall Street Journal: “A substantial number of cancellations risks further damage as the league tries to rebound in ratings. Viewership fell last year and continues to do so this year.”

The caveat on all of this is that the surveys also show people largely disagreeing with Trump’s call for kneeling players to be fired. But for Trump, that’s irrelevant. He wasn’t laying out an official policy pronouncement as much as he was channeling the gut-level feelings of the average voter eating breakfast at the Hardee’s in Dayton.

And don’t forget – a sizable portion of the American electorate would oppose any Donald Trump suggestion, whether he’s talking football or fried potatoes.

Calling for the players to be fired reminds me of Trump’s calls to “lock her up” during the 2016 presidential campaign. I’m sure some people thought he might actually jail Hillary Clinton should he win the election, but most folks saw the chant for what it was: hyperbole designed simply to channel public sentiment.

Reading the Washington Post piece this week about Darrell Hammond, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member who did the best Trump impression before being unceremoniously dumped in favor of Alec Baldwin, the talented comedian summed up Trump’s political instincts succinctly: “genius empath.” In the case of the NFL protests, Trump absorbed and channeled the feelings of most Americans, a vast majority of likely voters, and nearly all of his supporters.

By taking the extra step of calling for players to be fired, he stoked even hotter outrage from all the people he intends to inflame, a strategy of his that works time and again. He wants his most liberal enemies in politics and media to take the bait on these cultural war asides, and they usually (and stupidly) oblige.

These battles illustrate why the Democratic Party has “lost favor among voters in rural and small-town America,” as legendary journalist Dan Balz reported last year. People don’t take kindly to not standing for the National Anthem in all the places Trump and the Republicans need to win in 2018 and 2020. Trump couldn’t care less if people in urban areas, where Republicans have no hope of competing anyway, are upset with his strident, colorfully communicated views.

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Like a political magician with an endless bag of predictable-yet-entertaining tricks, Trump turned Democrats into the urban elite, anti-working man party in 2016.

In 2017, he has turned them into the anti-American flag party.

If Democrats don’t stop taking the bait on these things, for his next trick, Trump might just make them disappear in 2018 and 2020.