A Democratic Stress Test — The 2020 Election and Its Aftermath
Bright Line Watch November 2020 surveys

The 2020 election and its aftermath presented severe chal­lenges to U.S. democracy. The election was conducted during a pandemic that required fun­da­men­tal changes in how Americans cast and counted ballots. The incumbent president refused to commit in advance to a peaceful tran­si­tion of power if he lost, and continues to refuse to recognize that defeat as legit­i­mate (though he has finally relented to letting the tran­si­tion begin and signaled that he would accept an Electoral College defeat). During this process, many GOP leaders have endorsed the president’s baseless claims of electoral fraud, even publicly sug­gest­ing that state leg­is­la­tures could override the popular vote in awarding electors. Yet the election ulti­mate­ly succeeded in ways few dared hope. Most notably, polling places and mail balloting operated effec­tive­ly and mostly unevent­ful­ly under unprece­dent­ed con­di­tions. And despite a barrage of accu­sa­tions and lit­i­ga­tion, no evidence has surfaced of sys­tem­at­ic malfea­sance or mismanagement. 

To assess the impor­tance and con­se­quences of these events, Bright Line Watch fielded parallel surveys of political science experts and of a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of Americans to assess the impor­tance and mag­ni­tudes of these events. In this post-election survey, which was fielded from November 12–25, we asked our public sample questions about the legit­i­ma­cy of the election results, their con­fi­dence that votes were cast and counted fairly, their beliefs about voter fraud, and their will­ing­ness to condone political violence. We asked our experts to rate the like­li­hood of 23 scenarios related to the November election and the tran­si­tion to a new admin­is­tra­tion that could produce political crises, and to evaluate a number of recent events related to the election. As in previous surveys, we asked both groups to assess the quality of U.S. democracy overall and to rate per­for­mance on 30 distinct demo­c­ra­t­ic principles. 

We report a number of key findings below from both the public and the experts we surveyed:

Public

  • Compared to before the election, confidence in the election process and the legitimacy of the outcome became much more polarized between supporters and opponents of President Trump.

  • Most notably, confidence in the national vote count plummeted among Trump supporters, declining from 56% before the election to 28% afterward.

  • Similarly, belief polarization about voter fraud grew still wider — in particular, even larger majorities of Trump supporters now believe that fraud is rampant compared to before the election.

  • More encouragingly, willingness to condone political violence declined slightly after the election.

Experts

  • Expert forecasts in October correctly identified the six nightmare scenarios that did actually transpire as among the eight that they forecast as most likely, but generally overestimated the probability of outcomes seen as somewhat or not very likely (none of which actually took place).

  • Experts believe it is highly likely that President Trump will continue to refuse to recognize Biden’s presidency and to obstruct the transition, and that the President will take actions to protect himself and those around him from legal exposure after leaving office. They regard problems with the Electoral College and the formal recognition of Biden’s presidency as unlikely.

  • Large majorities of experts regard Trump’s attacks on U.S. elections and the press as serious or grave threats to American democracy. By contrast, experts do not consider mail balloting to pose a threat to democracy and are divided over Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court appointment.

We present our results in three parts. First, we review the public’s per­cep­tion of various aspects of the November election. We then describe experts’ assess­ments of the election and events in its immediate wake. Finally, we step back to gauge how both the public and the experts rate the per­for­mance of American democracy both overall and across thirty core demo­c­ra­t­ic principles.

The public’s view of the election

The November survey asked questions about a number of topics we pre­vi­ous­ly asked about in October, including con­fi­dence in the election, beliefs about voter fraud, and attitudes toward political violence (the wording on some items was adjusted to be ret­ro­spec­tive rather than prospec­tive when necessary). We report here on the public’s views after the election and how they compare either for the full October and November samples or, in some cases, for the subset of respon­dents who took part in both surveys.

Legitimacy

We asked respon­dents in our public survey, which was conducted after the media called the race for Biden, if they regarded Joe Biden as the rightful winner of the pres­i­den­tial election. During the time that the survey was in the field, President Trump continued to press the case, without evidence, that elections in key states were marred by fraud, though he allowed the tran­si­tion to begin just before the survey was completed and acknowl­edged the pos­si­bil­i­ty of stepping aside if he loses the Electoral College vote soon after the survey was completed. We divide our respon­dents between those who approve and those who dis­ap­prove of Trump’s per­for­mance as president. Among those who dis­ap­prove, 86% regard Biden as def­i­nite­ly the rightful winner and another 9% regard him as probably the rightful winner. Among those who approve of Trump, the cor­re­spond­ing figures are just 8% and 17%, respec­tive­ly. Similarly, just 18% of those who approve of Trump say the true result of the election was that Biden won; 30% said Trump won and 52% said the winner was not yet known or they didn’t know.

Partisan polar­iza­tion over the legit­i­ma­cy of the outcome was more severe than it appeared it would be in the October survey.  In that earlier survey, we asked respon­dents to imagine a win by each major candidate. In October, 33% of survey respon­dents who strongly approved of Trump said they would view a vic­to­ri­ous Biden as def­i­nite­ly or probably the “rightful winner.” After the election, only 9% of these same respon­dents said Biden was actually the rightful winner. Indeed, fully 67% of strong Trump sup­port­ers expressed certainty that Biden is def­i­nite­ly not the rightful winner. 

Differences in the per­cep­tions of pro- and anti-Trump respon­dents are not the result of the two groups having different basic infor­ma­tion about the election outcome. We asked each respon­dent to indicate whether they had heard that the media had declared a winner. Between 80% and 88% of each group had heard this news. We asked which candidate had been declared the winner. More than 8 in 10 Trump sup­port­ers acknowl­edged it was Biden (84%), not far behind the 95% of Trump opponents who knew this fact. Yet when we asked each group whom they believed would be inau­gu­rat­ed on January 20, 2021, nearly the same number of Trump sup­port­ers said they expected to see Trump sworn in for a second term (48%) than expected to see Biden take the oath (49%). Among Trump opponents, 96% expected Biden to be inaugurated. 

Confidence in the ballot and the count

Our survey also probed what sub­stan­tive beliefs underpin the sus­pi­cions among Trump sup­port­ers. We first asked public par­tic­i­pants how confident they are that everyone who was legally entitled to vote and sought to do so was able to vote suc­cess­ful­ly. These dif­fer­ences are limited. Seventy-four percent of Trump sup­port­ers and 84% of Trump opponents said they were either very or somewhat confident that the franchise was open to all eligible voters (as opposed to not very or not at all confident). This gap narrowed since October; con­fi­dence in ballot access among Trump opponents increased from 65% to 84% (poten­tial­ly reflect­ing record turnout and/or the election outcome), while falling among Trump sup­port­ers (from 85% to 74%). 

Trump sup­port­ers and opponents differ most in their expressed levels of con­fi­dence in how votes were counted. We asked each respon­dent about con­fi­dence that their own vote was counted as intended, that votes in their state were counted as voters intended, and that votes nation­wide were counted as voters intended. The figure below shows the levels of “very” and “somewhat confident” responses (as opposed to not very and not at all confident) among Trump approvers (red) and dis­ap­provers (blue) in our pre-election and post-election surveys. Among Trump opponents, the pro­por­tion who expressed con­fi­dence that their vote was counted as intended is unchanged from October to November, but con­fi­dence at the state and national levels rose sharply (from 76% to 92% and from 61% to 88%, respec­tive­ly). By contrast, con­fi­dence plummeted at all levels among Trump sup­port­ers over the same period. Confidence declined from 82% to 57% for the respondent’s own vote and from 77% to 64% in voting at the state level. Most notably, however, con­fi­dence in the national vote count collapsed from 56% to 28% among Trump sup­port­ers at the national level. 

The figure below dis­ag­gre­gates respon­dents who took part in both surveys by their level of Trump approval or dis­ap­proval in October. The decline in con­fi­dence in the national vote was greatest among Trump’s most devoted sup­port­ers, who appear most receptive to messages from Trump and Republican elites ques­tion­ing the integrity of the election outcome. Specifically, con­fi­dence in the national vote declined from 51% to 15% among people who strongly approved of Trump’s per­for­mance in office in October (versus 66% to 42% among those who somewhat approve). Among those who dis­ap­prove of Trump, con­fi­dence at state and national levels rose over the same period. 

Incidence of voter fraud

If three-quarters of the president’s sup­port­ers do not believe national vote tallies, what do they regard as the source of mischief? President Trump has made baseless alle­ga­tions through­out his pres­i­den­cy that American elections are marred by wide­spread fraud. Although voter fraud is van­ish­ing­ly rare in general and no evidence has been presented of sys­tem­at­ic fraud during the 2020 contest, false claims from the President and his allies appear to be affecting the beliefs of Trump supporters. 

We asked respon­dents about the preva­lence of five different forms of fraud: voting by non-citizens, voting under a false identity, stealing or tampering with ballots, voting more than once, and voting with another person’s absentee ballot. Respondents were asked, for each type of fraud, how many instances they believe occurred in the November election on a seven-point scale from “Less than ten” to “A million or more.” The figure below shows the per­cent­age, among each group, that believes the incidence was “Thousands” or higher for each type of fraud. 

Even among Trump opponents, perceived fraud was vastly more common than any doc­u­ment­ed evidence supports. Levels among Trump sup­port­ers are multiple times higher still — they were, for instance, more likely to select “Millions” than “Thousands” as a response option. Moreover, the gap in perceived fraud levels between Trump sup­port­ers and opponents only increased from October to November. Trump opponents perceived each type of fraud to be less frequent, while Trump sup­port­ers became more convinced of unbridled mis­con­duct. (See Figure 11 in the appendix for partial dis­tri­b­u­tions of responses for each item and group.)

The figure makes clear that over­whelm­ing majori­ties of Trump sup­port­ers — between 79% and 85% — regard every form of malfea­sance we asked about as having occurred thousands of times or more (up to millions) in the 2020 election. The levels of fraud in which these respon­dents profess to believe are stag­ger­ing and would require the com­plic­i­ty of thousands of local electoral officials and vol­un­teers, including numerous Republicans and non-partisan par­tic­i­pants. However, though claims of wide­spread fraud and electoral mis­con­duct have been repeat­ed­ly dismissed by judges in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia, they have become pervasive among Trump supporters. 

Tolerance for violence

Finally, we consider the public’s will­ing­ness to condone political violence and intim­i­da­tion, a topic of wide­spread concern prior to the election, par­tic­u­lar­ly after law enforce­ment foiled a plot by self-styled militia members to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in October. Thankfully, the November election itself went off without a major incident of violence. With the exception of con­fronta­tions at a Washington, DC rally between Trump sup­port­ers and his opponents that left one person hos­pi­tal­ized, cel­e­bra­tions and demon­stra­tions following the dec­la­ra­tion of Joe Biden as the winner were also largely peaceful. Following research by Nathan Kalmoe and Liliana Mason, we asked our respon­dents about whether it is ever justified to harass partisan opponents online, send a threat­en­ing message to an opposing party leader, use violence to advance one’s goals, use violence in response to violence from the other party after the election, or use violence if the other party wins the next election. 

Here, we find a bit of good news — will­ing­ness to condone intim­i­da­tion and violence declined from October to November. The mag­ni­tudes of these declines were modest but they were sta­tis­ti­cal­ly dis­cernible from zero for every item in the survey battery among President Trump’s opponents and for 2 of 5 items (“Violence if the opposing party wins an election” and “Violence to advance political goals”) among Trump sup­port­ers. The figure below shows slight decreases in the per­cent­age of respon­dents who say that they would occa­sion­al­ly, fre­quent­ly, or always resort to violence in each scenario (the residual category was “never”). The expe­ri­ence of a rel­a­tive­ly peaceful election appears to have reduced per­cep­tions of threat from partisan adversaries.

Experts’ views

We asked our expert sample to evaluate the like­li­hood of a number of prospec­tive scenarios fre­quent­ly discussed in the media, and to assess events that have already happened according to their normality, their impor­tance, and the potential threats they present to American democracy.

Nightmares that happened, that did not, and that could loom ahead

Both the October and November surveys asked our experts to estimate the prob­a­bil­i­ty of election-related scenarios that could create crises for demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions. We asked them about 28 distinct scenarios. In October, there were eight nightmare scenarios on which the median expert forecast was 70% or higher (i.e., experts thought there was at least a 7 in 10 chance the event would occur):

  • Millions of Americans are exposed to false claims about voter fraud and election integrity on social media from unknown or obscure sources on Election Day (95%).

  • President Trump attacks the “blue shift” toward Democrats as mail votes are counted, insisting that the initial totals on Election Night were correct (85%).

  • Tens of thousands of voters are still in line when polls are scheduled to close in at least one state due to long lines and delays on Election Day (84%).

  • President Trump makes statements or posts tweets encouraging violence and intimidation during voting or ballot counting (81%).

  • President Trump is declared the loser of the election by the Associated Press but refuses to immediately concede defeat (80%).

  • One or both presidential candidates declare victory before the race has been called by the Associated Press (70%).

  • Interim Election Night totals understate Democratic votes, creating widespread suspicion of the results (70%).

  • 5% or more of ballots cast by mail are rejected in one or more states (70%).

Of those pro­jec­tions, the two pre­dict­ing election admin­is­tra­tion failures were clearly incorrect. Polling places operated with remark­able effec­tive­ness; expec­ta­tions about long lines and delays for voters did not mate­ri­al­ize. Similarly, rates of mail-in ballot rejection were lower than in previous elections, generally at or below one percent and never exceeding the five percent threshold in any state that many experts feared. The other six high-like­li­hood nightmare scenarios did, in fact, mate­ri­al­ize. President Trump encour­aged his sup­port­ers to engage in tactics that could intim­i­date other voters and vote counters, then declared victory on Election Night. Election Night vote totals under­stat­ed Democratic support, Trump insisted vote counting should stop, Trump was declared the loser but refused (and still refuses) to concede, and false claims about voter fraud and election integrity have flooded social media on and after Election Day.

None of the other twenty scenarios have taken place to this point. These were scenarios which, on average, experts rated as having a prob­a­bil­i­ty of taking place that was as low as five percent or as high as 64%. (Our prior report indicated that these prob­a­bil­i­ties seemed too high; see its appendix for the full list.) Of these, seven did not take place as specified, including scenarios experts rated as quite possible, such as the Department of Justice seeking to block the counting of mail-in ballots (55%), postal service delays causing more than one million mail ballots sent by voters to not be delivered in time to be counted (50%), or poll-worker shortages forcing the Election Day closure or con­sol­i­da­tion of more than one thousand polling locations nation­wide (50%). Experts were appro­pri­ate­ly skeptical of other scenarios that did not take place, including millions of coun­ter­feit ballots being mailed to Americans from a foreign county (5%), the RNC or DNC selecting a replace­ment candidate for president before Election Day (10%), stay-at-home orders pre­vent­ing voters from going to the polls on Election Day in one or more large cities (20%), or Russian hackers crippling voter reg­is­tra­tion and election systems in one or more states (22%). (Thirteen other scenarios that experts rated in the prior wave remain possible, though most appear exceed­ing­ly unlikely.)

The overall results of expert forecasts are sum­ma­rized in the figure below, which indicates that experts performed rel­a­tive­ly well among events they rated as having a high like­li­hood of taking place (six of eight events took place that they rated as having a 70% chance or better). However, seven other events that they predicted as having a 5–55% chance of taking place did not occur. 

Our November expert survey included 23 nightmare scenarios — nine repeated from the October survey that could still occur and others that we intro­duced as options on this November survey for the first time. The full list of scenarios evaluated in this wave is available in the appendix. The next figure below reports the median prob­a­bil­i­ty estimate and density of expert prob­a­bil­i­ty estimates across the 0–100% range for each scenario. Items are listed in descend­ing order of estimated median like­li­hood. The experts rate twelve scenarios as more likely than not; the other eleven are regarded as sub­stan­tial­ly less likely, with median estimates of 35% or lower. The prob­a­bil­i­ty dis­tri­b­u­tions are shaded red for high-prob­a­bil­i­ty items and yellow for those rated less likely.

According to experts, the most likely events on the list are President Trump refusing to attend President-elect Biden’s inau­gu­ra­tion (90% median prob­a­bil­i­ty estimate) or to concede the election before that date (84%). By contrast, they view a scenario in which Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy refuse to acknowl­edge Biden’s electoral win as far less likely (20%).

At the time of our survey, our experts expected Trump to obstruct a smooth transfer of authority, including blocking funding for Biden’s tran­si­tion team until the Electoral College vote or afterward (80%), refusing to cooperate with the tran­si­tion until the Electoral College vote or afterward (78%), and firing over 100 senior civil servants (60%). The admin­is­tra­tion did in fact block funding and autho­riza­tion for the tran­si­tion for three weeks after the election, but relented on that count only on November 23 rather than pressing the matter until the Electoral College vote.

The experts were also attuned to the legal precarity of President Trump and those around him, rating as likely that the president destroys incrim­i­nat­ing documents before leaving the White House (82%); uses the pardon power pre­emp­tive­ly on behalf of Rudi Giuliani (80%), members of his own family (74%), or even himself (56%); pardons or commutes the sentences of political allies Michael Flynn and/or Paul Manafort (80%), and seeks legal amnesty for himself and family members (70%). Here again, just as our survey completed, Trump validated one of these forecasts by pardoning Michael Flynn on November 25. Another pardon scenario was rated as much less likely by our experts, however — the median forecast for President Trump resigning before January 20 and then being pardoned by Mike Pence is only 27%.

Various scenarios asso­ci­at­ed with inde­ter­mi­nate and contested election outcomes are now seen as unlikely by experts. The highest prob­a­bil­i­ties were assigned to the Supreme Court inter­ven­ing to decide one or more election-related disputes (35%) or one or more states failing to appoint electors before the December 8 safe harbor deadline (25%). Less likely still are scenarios in which one or more states send competing slates of electors to Congress (15%) or one or more state leg­is­la­tures abandon the popular vote as a basis to appoint electors (10%). 

Scenarios involving Electoral College inde­ter­mi­na­cy — a dispute between the Vice President and Speaker of the House, the appoint­ment of an acting president, the deter­mi­na­tion of the pres­i­den­cy by the House of Representatives, or pivotal action by a faithless elector — are rated as even less likely. The least likely of our 23 scenarios, however, is Trump being sworn in for a second term, which gets a median prob­a­bil­i­ty of 2%.

A clear pattern emerges from these responses. The experts expect non-com­pli­ance from President Trump in the orderly transfer of authority to a Biden admin­is­tra­tion. They expect legal machi­na­tions around the pardon authority and possible amnesty for at least members of the Trump family and inner circle. They do not, however, regard Joe Biden’s victory or his eventual path to the pres­i­den­cy to be in serious doubt. Based on the pattern from October, we expect a number of the scenarios rated as most likely by experts to take place but rel­a­tive­ly few of those rated as having a low or inter­me­di­ate probability.

We repeated nine of the 28 nightmare scenarios from the October survey in November. Most of these scenarios refer to aspects of the process by which the state-level popular vote is converted into a pres­i­den­tial election outcome — for example, a state missing the safe harbor deadline for selecting its pres­i­den­tial electors on December 8 or sending competing slates of electors to Congress later in the month. On the whole, our experts’ sense of alarm about the election has declined, with prob­a­bil­i­ty estimates for every election-related item declining between our October and November surveys. The figure below shows the median estimate and 95% con­fi­dence interval for each scenario in declining order of their estimated likelihood. 

Concern among experts declined in almost every case, including that the Supreme Court would intervene to resolve an election dispute (53% to 35%), that a state would miss the safe harbor deadline (50% to 25%), that a state would abandon the popular vote as the basis for naming its electors (29% to 10%), or that an acting president would be appointed under the 20th Amendment (19% to 10%). The only item that does not decline from October to November relates to President Trump’s legal status. Expert expec­ta­tions that Trump would seek legal amnesty for himself and family members during the tran­si­tion rose slightly from 64% in our October pre-election survey to 70% in the post-election survey. 

Threats to democracy

Our November survey included a new battery that asked the experts to gauge the threat, if any, to American democracy posed by ten note­wor­thy events. Respondents were asked to rate each event as a grave threat, a serious threat, a moderate threat, little threat, or no threat to democracy. The bar graph below lists the events in order of the total pro­por­tion of experts that rated each threat as either grave (red), serious (orange), or moderate (yellow). 

Despite bitter criticism from the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, experts do not regard media outlets declaring Biden the winner of the election as a peril to democracy. Similarly, few see dis­trib­ut­ing mail ballots to all reg­is­tered voters in some states or counting them if mailed by election day as threats. Although unprece­dent­ed, few experts regard the can­cel­la­tion of a pres­i­den­tial debate as a hazard to our system of gov­ern­ment either. All of these events were decried by Trump, but experts perceive little or no threat.

The appoint­ment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court raised somewhat greater alarm among experts. Barrett’s nom­i­na­tion and con­fir­ma­tion in the last weeks before the election attracted howls from President Trump’s opponents, who denounced the move as a power grab and con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball. The appoint­ment spurred calls for Supreme Court expansion among Democrats antic­i­pat­ing that the election would return control of the Senate as well as the pres­i­den­cy. Despite this outcry, however, most experts were not seriously concerned over Barrett’s appoint­ment — 55% rated it as posing little or no danger to democracy, though 31% rate it as a moderate threat, 11% as a serious threat, and 3% as a grave threat.

The events that experts saw as  more threat­en­ing to democracy all pertain to President Trump’s conduct in office. Some predate the election. For instance, we asked experts to rate Trump’s July 2019 attempt to pressure Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky into inves­ti­gat­ing Joe Biden. Nineteen percent rated that event, which prompted Trump’s impeach­ment by the House of Representatives, as a grave threat to democracy, while 37% regarded it as a serious threat and 31% rated it as a moderate threat. Experts were most alarmed, however, by Trump calling the press an “enemy of the people,” an epithet he has repeated through­out his pres­i­den­cy. Seventy-one percent of experts described Trump’s use of this smear as a grave or serious threat to democracy. These figures were nearly identical to those for Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful tran­si­tion of power (70% of experts rated as grave or serious) and his related refusal to concede after Biden was projected to be the winner (68% grave or serious). These judgments reflect an expert consensus that freedom of the press and the peaceful transfer of power via elections are bedrocks of democracy; Trump’s refusal to honor these prin­ci­ples is seen to place that foun­da­tion in jeopardy.

The impor­tance and normality of events in October and November 2020

As in prior surveys, we asked our experts to sep­a­rate­ly assess the impor­tance and normalcy of notable events that took place since our last report. Although our previous survey was conducted only one month earlier, there was no lack of material. Results are presented in the figures below. The events of greatest concern are those situated in the upper-right quadrant. These events are ones that experts deem highly uncon­ven­tion­al and con­se­quen­tial; these are often major depar­tures from demo­c­ra­t­ic norms. 

To provide greater clarity, the figure below provides a mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of the top right sector high­light­ed in gray above, labeling the densely clustered items (labels in black) and super­im­pos­ing them over items rated in that same top right sector in previous survey waves. These are the events that took place during the Trump admin­is­tra­tion that experts rated as most abnormal and important.

None of the events from October and November broke ground in their abnormality alone. The most abnormal events to date in our data include Trump’s sug­ges­tion of a delay in the 2020 election; his refusal to commit to a peaceful tran­si­tion of power; and the Helsinki summit in which Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin in rejecting U.S. intel­li­gence of Russia’s inter­fer­ence in the 2016 election. However, experts rate President Trump’s per­sis­tent claims of wide­spread election fraud after the pres­i­den­tial election was called for Biden as the most important event of his pres­i­den­cy that is also highly abnormal. Here again, our expert responses highlight the premium they place on consensus recog­ni­tion of core demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­ce­dures and electoral authority. The way Trump is using baseless claims of fraud to deny the legit­i­ma­cy of his defeat in a free and fair election presents a direct threat to demo­c­ra­t­ic stability.

Democratic performance as evaluated by the public and the experts

As in previous surveys, we asked both expert and public respon­dents to assess the quality of U.S. democracy overall and to evaluate its per­for­mance on thirty distinct demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples (see Appendix for the complete list). The figure below shows mean eval­u­a­tions of the overall quality of U.S. democracy on a 0–100 scale among experts (green line) and the public (purple line). It also sep­a­rate­ly plots responses among the public from Trump approvers (red line) and dis­ap­provers (blue line).

The 2020 election improved per­cep­tions of U.S. democracy among both the public and experts. The mean rating on a 0–100 scale nudged up from 53.1 to 53.7 among the public from October to November and from 60.6 to 64.4 among experts. Unsurprisingly, though, this pattern differed sharply between members of the public who approve of Trump and those who do not. Trump sup­port­ers rated U.S. democracy lower (declining from 60.4 to 55.1) while opponents rated it higher (increas­ing from 48.1 to 52.8). 

The next figures turn attention to our thirty demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples, showing the per­cent­age of respon­dents who indicated that the U.S. “mostly meets” or “fully meets” each principle in our October (left side) and November (right side) surveys. The lines illus­trate changes from one survey to the next, with sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant improve­ments high­light­ed in green and declines in red. 

Among experts, we see a mea­sur­able decline in demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance on only one principle — that politi­cians who lose free and fair elections will concede defeat — and sharp upticks on some prin­ci­ples related to elections, including elections being free from foreign influence (from 29% to 55%) and par­tic­i­pa­tion levels being high (from 14% to 39%). November’s survey also saw a sub­stan­tial improve­ment in expert assess­ments that citizens are protected from political violence by private actors, which may reflect the lack of violence sur­round­ing the November election as well as a rebound from the October survey, which followed shootings at protests in Wisconsin and Oregon earlier in the fall.

Among the public, eval­u­a­tions of per­for­mance on demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples were rel­a­tive­ly stable. We observe sig­nif­i­cant changes from October to November on only two items — that par­tic­i­pa­tion should be high and elections protected from foreign influence. Assessments improved on both prin­ci­ples. Positive eval­u­a­tions of US per­for­mance on par­tic­i­pa­tion comes in the wake of the highest turnout in more than a century, with an estimated 66.5% of eligible voters casting ballots. The improved assess­ment on foreign influence reflects pre-election concerns not being borne out.

When we separate public respon­dents by approval of President Trump in the figure below, however, the picture changes radically. Trump sup­port­ers perceive mea­sur­able declines on seven items: pro­tec­tions for free speech, indi­vid­u­als’ right to protest, and from foreign influence in elections, that can­di­dates disclose suf­fi­cient infor­ma­tion for voters to know how they will govern, that electoral districts do not sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly favor one party, that all votes have equal impact, and that elections are free of fraud. The last claim likely indicates that President Trump’s stream of claims about electoral fraud are res­onat­ing with his sup­port­ers, despite the failure of the president and his legal team to provide any evidence that with­stands judicial scrutiny. 
We find a steep drop in Trump approvers’ belief in all votes being counted equally, from 62% in October to 28% in November. This drop is puzzling. It is well doc­u­ment­ed, of course, that all votes do not count equally. Votes from less-populated states are, in effect, more heavily weighted both in pres­i­den­tial elections via the Electoral College and in the Senate because of that chamber’s malap­por­tion­ment. In House elections, Republicans are advan­taged in more states by ger­ry­man­der­ing than are Democrats and enjoy struc­tur­al advan­tages in dis­trict­ing due to greater geo­graph­ic con­cen­tra­tion among Democrats. As a result, Republicans enjoy success that is dis­pro­por­tion­ate to their vote share in contests for every federal office. The president’s sup­port­ers are pre­sum­ably not embracing these facts but instead express­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion that their votes were not enough to keep Trump in the White House.

The picture among Trump’s opponents looks dra­mat­i­cal­ly different. Like the experts, they perceive a decline in demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance on one principle — that losing can­di­dates concede elections — but on 19 of the remaining 29 items their assess­ments rose by sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant margins. The greatest improve­ments were observed for con­fi­dence that elections are free of fraud, which rose more (19 per­cent­age points) than perceived per­for­mance on the same item declined among Trump sup­port­ers (17 points). The list of other items in which per­for­mance increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly includes those connected to elections (equal voting rights, equal impact, no foreign influence) and also some that pertain to norms of behavior (seeking com­pro­mise with opponents, respect­ing one’s adversary’s patri­o­tism). In general, Trump’s opponents viewed U.S. per­for­mance on numerous demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples more pos­i­tive­ly in the weeks following the election. 

Appendix

Bright Line Watch surveys on the state of America’s democracy, November 2020

From November 12–25, 2020, Bright Line Watch conducted its thir­teenth survey of academic experts, and tenth of the general public, on the quality of democracy in the United States. Our public sample consisted of 2,700 survey par­tic­i­pants from the YouGov sample who were selected and weighted to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the U.S. adult pop­u­la­tion. We also surveyed 561 political science experts across a diverse range of subfields (5% of solicited invi­ta­tions). Our email list was con­struct­ed from the faculty list of U.S. insti­tu­tions rep­re­sent­ed in the online program of the 2016 American Political Science Association con­fer­ence and updated by reviewing depart­ment websites and job placement records from Ph.D. programs in the period since.

All estimates shown in the report used weights provided by YouGov. Our expert sample is tra­di­tion­al­ly unweight­ed because we do not collect demo­graph­ic data to protect anonymity. Error bars in our graphs represent 95% con­fi­dence intervals. Data are available here.

Both the expert and public samples in Wave 13 responded to a battery of questions about demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance in the United States. Afterward, they were asked to evaluate the quality of American democracy overall on a 100-point scale. Experts were also asked to evaluate the quality of democracy in their state on the same 0–100 scale. Expert respon­dents were then asked to respond to two addi­tion­al batteries: one in which they were presented with a list of political events and asked to rate them on normalcy and impor­tance, another in which they were asked to evaluate hypo­thet­i­cal scenarios related to the 2020 Presidential Election (lists of both are below), and a final set of questions about the degree to which select events posed a threat to democracy. 

Nightmare Scenarios

Respondents were asked to assess the chances that each one of the following scenarios will occur.

  • 1. President Trump attempts to negotiate legal amnesty for himself and his family after the election. 
  • 2. One or more states send competing slates of electors to the Electoral College. 
  • 3. One or more states are unable to resolve an election dispute before the safe harbor deadline.
  • 4. A dispute over the results of the election creates a conflict between the Vice President and the Speaker of the House over accepting Electoral College votes.
  • 5. A conflict over Electoral College votes causes the appoint­ment of an acting president under the terms of the Twentieth Amendment on January 20, 2021.
  • 6. One or more legal disputes over the election are decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • 7. One or more state leg­is­la­tures enact a bill that would overturn the statewide popular vote as an allo­ca­tion mechanism for electors and/or stop the counting of ballots.
  • 8. A faithless elector decides the presidency.
  • 9. The pres­i­den­tial election is decided by the House of Representatives.
  • 10. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion destroys documents that might implicate the White House in wrongdoing. 
  • 11. President Trump refuses to cooperate on the pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tion with the incoming Biden admin­is­tra­tion after the Electoral College vote.
  • 12. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion blocks gov­ern­ment funding for the Biden tran­si­tion until the Electoral College vote or afterward.
  • 13. President Trump refuses to formally concede defeat before the inauguration.
  • 14. President Trump pardons himself.
  • 15. President Trump fires FBI director Christopher Wray.
  • 16. President Trump pardons or commutes the sentences of Michael Flynn and/or Paul Manafort.
  • 17. President Trump pre­emp­tive­ly pardons family members.
  • 18. President Trump pre­emp­tive­ly pardons Rudy Giuliani and/or employees of the Trump organization.
  • 19. President Trump resigns and is pardoned by Mike Pence.
  • 20. President Trump refuses to attend Joe Biden’s pres­i­den­tial inauguration.
  • 21. President Trump fires more than 100 senior civil servants before the inauguration.
  • 22. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy fail to acknowl­edge Joe Biden as the legit­i­mate winner of the election even after Biden is inau­gu­rat­ed in January 2021.
  • 23. President Trump is sworn in for a second term on January 20, 2021.

Events

  • 1. President Trump declaring he won the election before the race had been called
  • 2. President Trump refusing to concede defeat after being declared loser of the election
  • 3. President Trump claiming wide­spread fraud after being declared loser of the election
  • 4. Rudy Giuliani holding a press con­fer­ence at Four Seasons Total Landscaping
  • 5. President Trump creating the 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education”
  • 6. GSA admin­is­tra­tor declining to release funds to Biden transition
  • 7. George W. Bush and Mitt Romney con­grat­u­lat­ing Biden on pres­i­den­tial victory
  • 8. Trump campaign posting doctored newspaper headline declaring Gore 2000 victor
  • 9. The Commission on Presidential Debates can­celling the October 15 debate
  • 10. Senate Democrats boy­cotting Amy Coney Barrett’s Judiciary Committee vote
  • 11. President Trump firing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper after the election via tweet
  • 12. President Trump abruptly ending a ’60 Minutes’ interview with Lesley Stahl
  • 13. Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and other Republican officials encour­ag­ing Trump not to concede
  • 14. The Trump campaign filing legal chal­lenges in swing states after election is called
  • 15. President Trump signing an executive order making it easier to fire federal civil service employees
  • 16. Rudy Giuliani obtaining Hunter Biden’s laptop and promoting cor­rup­tion claims against him
  • 17. Attorney General Bill Barr autho­riz­ing DOJ to probe “clear and appar­ent­ly-credible alle­ga­tions” of election irreg­u­lar­i­ties if they exist
  • 18. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler calling for the Georgia Secretary of State, a Republican, to step down
  • 19. Mitch McConnell declining to recognize Biden as president-elect in floor speech after race called
  • 20. President Trump deploying members of his cabinet as campaign sur­ro­gates before election
  • 21. President Trump cutting off nego­ti­a­tions for stimulus package and blaming Pelosi for the impasse
  • 22. Mike Pence and Kamala Harris par­tic­i­pat­ing in the vice pres­i­den­tial debate
  • 23. President Trump helping to facil­i­tate peace agreement between Sudan and Israel
  • 24. FDA providing emergency autho­riza­tion for Eli Lilly’s exper­i­men­tal antibody drug to treat COVID-19
  • 25. President Trump promoting con­spir­a­cy theory that Osama Bin Laden killing was a hoax
  • 26. President Trump praising U.S. marshals killing antifa murder suspect in Portland
  • 27. President Trump refusing to disavow QAnon
  • 28. Right-wing militia members in Michigan plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
  • 29. Businesses board up in major cities fearing post-election violence and protests

Threats to democracy

We then asked respon­dents to evaluate the extent of the threat to the quality and stability of American democracy posed by the following events.

  • 1. President Trump declaring that he had won the election before the race had been called. 
  • 2. President Trump refusing to concede defeat after being declared loser of the election.
  • 3. President Trump refusing to commit before the election to a peaceful tran­si­tion of power. 
  • 4. President Trump pres­sur­ing Ukraine to inves­ti­gate Joe Biden.
  • 5. President Trump calling the press an “enemy of the people.”
  • 6. Networks, including Fox News, declaring Joe Biden the winner of the pres­i­den­tial election.
  • 7. The Commission on Presidential Debates can­celling the October 15 debate.
  • 8. The appoint­ment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
  • 9. The practice of mailing absentee ballots to all reg­is­tered voters.
  • 10. The practice of counting mail ballots post­marked by Election Day even if received afterward.

Democratic prin­ci­ples

The foun­da­tion of Bright Line Watch’s surveys is a list of 30 state­ments express­ing a range of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples (the full list is provided below). Democracy is a mul­ti­di­men­sion­al concept. Our goal is to provide a detailed set of measures of demo­c­ra­t­ic values and of the quality of American democracy. We are also inter­est­ed in the resilience of democracy and the nature of potential threats it faces. Based on the expe­ri­ences of other countries that have expe­ri­enced demo­c­ra­t­ic setbacks, we recognize that demo­c­ra­t­ic erosion is not nec­es­sar­i­ly an across-the-board phe­nom­e­non. Some facets of democracy may be under­mined first while others remain intact, at least initially. The range of prin­ci­ples that we measure allows us to focus attention on variation in specific insti­tu­tions and practices that, in com­bi­na­tion, shape the overall per­for­mance of our democracy.

Bright Line Watch’s Wave 1 survey included 19 state­ments of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Based on feedback from respon­dents and con­sul­ta­tion with col­leagues, we expanded that list to 29 state­ments in Wave 2. We then reduced that set to a set of 27 state­ments for the Wave 3 through Wave 8 surveys. 17 of those 27 state­ments were included in Wave 1, and all 27 were included in Wave 2. We added one statement to the list in Wave 9. In Wave 12, we asked respon­dents to assess two addi­tion­al principles: 

  • The law is enforced equally for all persons
  • Politicians who lose free and fair elections will concede defeat

The full set of state­ments is presented below and grouped the­mat­i­cal­ly for clarity. In the surveys, the prin­ci­ples were not cat­e­go­rized or labeled. Each respon­dent was shown a randomly selected subset of state­ments (14 for the public, 9 for experts) and asked to rate the per­for­mance of the United States on those dimensions.

Elections

  • Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners deter­mined without pervasive fraud or manipulation
  • Citizens have access to infor­ma­tion about can­di­dates that is relevant to how they would govern
  • The geo­graph­ic bound­aries of electoral districts do not sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly advantage any par­tic­u­lar political party
  • Information about the sources of campaign funding is available to the public
  • Public policy is not deter­mined by large campaign contributions
  • Elections are free from foreign influence
  • Politicians who lose free and fair elections will concede defeat

Voting

  • All adult citizens have equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote
  • All votes have equal impact on election outcomes
  • Voter par­tic­i­pa­tion in elections is generally high

Rights

  • All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights
  • Parties and can­di­dates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies
  • Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression
  • Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in peaceful protest
  • Citizens can make their opinions heard in open debate about policies that are under consideration
  • The law is enforced equally for all persons

Protections

  • Government does not interfere with jour­nal­ists or news organizations
  • Government effec­tive­ly prevents private actors from engaging in polit­i­cal­ly-motivated violence or intimidation
  • Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents

Accountability

  • Government officials are legally sanc­tioned for misconduct
  • Government officials do not use public office for private gain
  • Law enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials or their asso­ciates are free from political influence or interference
  • Government sta­tis­tics and data are produced by experts who are not influ­enced by political considerations

Institutions

  • Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond con­sti­tu­tion­al limits
  • The leg­is­la­ture is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
  • The judiciary is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
  • The elected branches respect judicial independence

Discourse

  • Even when there are dis­agree­ments about ideology or policy, political leaders generally share a common under­stand­ing of relevant facts
  • Elected officials seek com­pro­mise with political opponents
  • Political com­pe­ti­tion occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism

To measure perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance, the survey asked, “How well do the following state­ments describe the United States as of today?” Each respon­dent was then presented with 14 state­ments of principle, randomly drawn from the set above, and offered the following response options:

  • The U.S. does not meet this standard
  • The U.S. partly meets this standard
  • The U.S. mostly meets this standard
  • The U.S. fully meets this standard
  • Not sure

The order in which state­ments were presented in the battery was ran­dom­ized for each respon­dent so there should be no priming or ordering effects in how they were assessed.

Appendix figures

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