Courts, campaigns, and confidence in American democracy

Courts, campaigns, and confidence in American democracy

Bright Line Watch February 2024 survey

The 2024 campaign promises to be like nothing the United States has seen before. Normally, spring of a pres­i­den­tial election year is dominated by a com­pet­i­tive campaign for the nom­i­na­tion of at least one major party. This year, neither the Democratic nor Republican primary contest is com­pet­i­tive. Instead, the coming months appear set to be dominated by legal machi­na­tions, with Republican front-runner Donald Trump facing four sets of criminal indict­ments and his legal team deploying appeals and pro­ce­dur­al objec­tions to delay trials for as long as possible. 

In this context, and with attention to the potential impli­ca­tions of these devel­op­ments for the per­for­mance of American democracy, we fielded parallel surveys of 678 political sci­en­tists and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of 2,798 Americans from February 15–23, 2024. Given the impor­tance of precisely measuring Republican per­cep­tions of topics such as the 2020 election and pros­e­cu­tions of Trump, the public survey included an over­sam­ple of Republicans. It is, however, weighted to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the American public as a whole.

Our key findings are the following:

Perceptions of legal cases related to the presidency

  • Democrats and Republicans are deeply polarized over whether states should be allowed to disqualify Trump from the ballot and on Trump’s claim to criminal immunity for actions taken while he was president. Public support for the immunity claim is lower, however, attracting only 51% support even among Republicans and 28% overall.

  • Experts are divided over the merits of disqualifying Trump from the ballot, but 94% say that upholding Trump’s claims to criminal immunity would threaten democracy, including 64% who say that doing so would constitute an extraordinary threat.

  • A narrow majority of the public (54%) trusts the Supreme Court to make impartial decisions in Trump-related cases. Confidence is much higher among Republicans (69%) than Democrats (44%).

  • An overwhelming majority – 95% – of experts say that the federal criminal trial of Trump for seeking to overturn the 2020 election should begin as soon as possible (51%) or be scheduled without regard for the electoral calendar (44%). Very few think the trial should only begin if it can be completed well before the election or be postponed until afterward.

  • Fewer than half of Americans believe that the criminal prosecutions of Trump are politically motivated. Large majorities of Republicans (79–82%) believe that the prosecutions unfairly target Trump whereas majorities of Democrats reject this idea. Experts generally reject the premise that prosecutors are targeting Trump, although 40% believe that the New York hush money case would not have been brought against another person.

  • A majority of the public (including 88% of Republicans and 43% of Democrats) believes President Biden would have been prosecuted by the Justice Department if he were someone else for his handling of classified documents after leaving office as Vice President.

  • Large majorities of experts believe Trump committed crimes in three separate cases. The hush money case in New York is least convincing to experts (69% say he committed a crime), while the documents case is most convincing (93%). Democrats (74–80%) believe Trump committed crimes related to the 2020 election and in his handling of classified documents. Very few Republicans agree (12–21%). Overall, public belief that Trump committed crimes ranges from 43–49% depending on the allegation.

Perceptions of threats to democracy

  • Pluralities of experts view the House impeachment of Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas (43%) and its investigation into Biden’s family and finances (42%) as threats to U.S. democracy. Concerns about House investigations into anti-Semitism and plagiarism in higher education are less acute.

  • Experts believe there is a greater than 90% chance of each of the following if Trump were returned to the presidency: that he would fire Special Counsel Jack Smith (92%), that he would pardon convicted January 6 insurrectionists (92%), and that he would suspend ongoing prosecutions of January 6 defendants (91%). Large majorities of Republicans (72–81%) would approve of these actions.

  • Experts also believe Trump would be very likely to open a criminal investigation into Biden or another leading Democrat (85%) and to pardon himself of federal charges or convictions (83%). GOP approval of these actions is high (84% and 68%, respectively).

  • Experts believe that, if elected again in 2024, it is more likely than not that Trump will attempt to stay in office beyond January 2029 (60%), invoke the Insurrection Act (59%), and withdraw from NATO (54%). GOP approval of these actions is lower, but majorities approve of withdrawing from NATO (56%) and invoking the Insurrection Act (64%). Support falls below 50% only for attempting to stay in office. However, this action, which would explicitly violate the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, is still endorsed by 32% of Republicans. 

  • Support for second term Trump actions that would violate democratic norms or rules is extremely high among Republicans who consider themselves to be more of a Trump supporter than a supporter of the GOP (69–90%) — the sole exception is attempting to stay in power after the end of his term in 2029, a violation of the Constitution that still attracts 41% support. Even among Republicans who instead describe themselves as primarily supporters of the GOP, majorities endorse each act in question except for NATO withdrawal (40%) and Trump trying to stay in power (23%). 

  • Attitudes toward Trump are hardened. Using a novel survey technique, we find that even his inflammatory statements about immigrants “poisoning the blood of our country” have minimal impact on respondents’ opinions of him.

Perceptions of pres­i­den­tial elections

  • Republicans are confident that their own votes (79%) and votes in their state (77%) will be counted as intended in the 2024 election, but their confidence in vote counts nationally drops off sharply to just 54%. Democrats are more confident in the integrity of the vote count at all levels. 

  • Confidence that Biden was the rightful winner in 2020 remains sharply polarized; the partisan gap on this question has not changed since last year.

  • Experts rated a Biden-Trump rematch as highly likely even before Super Tuesday: median estimates of nomination were 94% for each. Among the public, likelihood estimates were lower, especially for opposition candidates — Democrats gave Trump just a 70% chance of being the nominee and Republicans gave Biden only a 50% chance.

Perceptions of democracy overall

  • Assessments of the performance of U.S. democracy have risen slightly among the public since last summer, with the increase driven by Democrats, whose average ratings rose from 58 to 63 on a 100-point scale. Expert assessments, which are typically higher than those of the public, remain steady at 70.

  • However, both experts and the public project democratic declines in the future. These anticipated changes vary depending on who wins the presidency in 2024. Experts project small improvements if Biden or Republican Nikki Haley wins but expect a sharp decline in a second Trump term. Democrats expect improvement under Biden and decline under Haley and especially Trump. Republicans, by contrast, rate democracy higher if Trump wins and lower under Biden (with a Haley win leaving ratings unchanged).

Legal pro­ceed­ings and the pres­i­den­tial election

Former president Trump faces four sets of criminal charges — two at the federal level (the election con­spir­a­cy in case Washington, DC and the document handling case in Florida) and two at the state level (the election rack­e­teer­ing case in Georgia and the business records/hush money case in New York). Jury selection for the trial in the New York case is scheduled to begin on March 25, 2024. Trial schedules for the other cases are uncertain and subject to pro­ce­dur­al challenges.

Through the latter half of 2023 and into 2024, President Biden had also been under inves­ti­ga­tion by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Hur for his handling of clas­si­fied documents after leaving office as Vice President in 2017. In February 2024, Hur released a report con­clud­ing that criminal charges were not warranted.

In addition, two key cases related to the 2024 pres­i­den­tial election have landed before the U.S. Supreme Court in recent months. The first was an appeal of a decision by the Colorado state Supreme Court that would have barred Trump from the pres­i­den­tial ballot in that state on grounds of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the election of former office­hold­ers who have engaged in insur­rec­tion. On March 4, the U.S. Supreme Court unan­i­mous­ly reversed the Colorado decision, effec­tive­ly opening the path for Trump to appear on ballots in every state. 

The other case stems from an effort by Trump to block pros­e­cu­tion on Special Counsel Smith’s charges related to his effort to overturn the 2020 election on grounds that former pres­i­dents are immune from pros­e­cu­tion for actions they took as president. On February 27, the Court agreed to hear arguments in April on Trump’s criminal immunity claims. The effect was to push back any trial on the special counsel’s charges until late summer or fall at the earliest.

We asked par­tic­i­pants in our expert and public surveys a series of questions related to these cases. The results are reported below.

Perceptions of SCOTUS ballot dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion and immunity cases

During the period that our surveys were in the field, the U.S. Supreme Court had not resolved the ballot dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion case nor agreed to hear the criminal immunity case. We asked experts and the public to consider both issues.

Respondents in the public sample were asked whether Trump should be dis­qual­i­fied from the ballot for engaging in insur­rec­tion and whether he should have immunity from criminal pros­e­cu­tion for actions he took while he was president. The figure below shows the per­cent­ages of Democrats, Republicans, and the public overall who answered yes in each case. There is a familiar partisan split on both issues, with 77% of Democrats favoring ballot dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion compared to just 10% of Republicans. More Republicans (51%) than Democrats (10%) support immunity for Trump, but the issue splits even the ex-president’s own party. 

Overall public support for legal immunity (28%) is far lower than for ballot dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion (43%), though we note that the cases were at different stages when the survey was fielded. The ballot dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion case had already been debated exten­sive­ly when it was argued before the Court (though the decision had not been issued). By contrast, arguments in the immunity case, which are scheduled for April, will bring new levels of attention to that question, poten­tial­ly shifting public opinion.

In its decision reversing the Colorado state Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court con­sid­ered the specter of retal­ia­to­ry ballot dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion – the prospect that dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion of one party’s candidate in some states would prompt off­set­ting dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tions in other states. With that prospect in mind (although before the Court’s decision), we asked our public sample whether they thought that “Republican officials should seek to dis­qual­i­fy Joe Biden from the 2024 ballot in response to similar efforts against Donald Trump.” In total, 61% of Republicans and 40% of inde­pen­dents agreed with this statement, sug­gest­ing that retal­ia­to­ry dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion would enjoy sub­stan­tial public support in Republican strongholds.

We also surveyed our expert sample about these cases, asking not what outcomes they preferred but whether they would regard specific decisions as threats or benefits to democracy. We first asked respon­dents to assess the con­se­quences for democracy of the prior Colorado state Supreme Court decision ruling that the 14th amendment to the US Constitution prohibits Trump from appearing on Colorado ballots because of his actions on January 6, 2021.

We then asked them to prospec­tive­ly assess two paired scenarios for the impending decisions on ballot dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion and criminal immunity as either threats or benefits to democracy:

Ballot eli­gi­bil­i­ty case:

  • U.S. Supreme Court upholds the decision by the Colorado state Supreme Court barring Donald Trump from that state’s ballot for election to the presidency in 2024

  • U.S. Supreme Court overturns the decision by the Colorado state Supreme Court barring Donald Trump from that state’s ballot for election to the presidency in 2024, allowing Trump to appear on the ballot

Immunity case:

  • U.S. Supreme Court upholds Donald Trump’s claim of immunity from prosecution for former presidents

  • U.S. Supreme Court rejects Donald Trump’s claim of immunity from prosecution for former presidents

As the figure below shows, experts were divided over the initial Colorado decision declaring Trump inel­i­gi­ble for the ballot in that state. Fifty percent of experts rated it as ben­e­fi­cial to democracy (versus 23% who iden­ti­fied it as a threat). However, these views were not held strongly; just 35% saw a reversal of the Colorado decision — the judgment that the U.S. Supreme Court would reach — as a threat to democracy. (23% said it would be ben­e­fi­cial to democracy).

In the immunity case, we find near consensus among experts and symmetry in their judgments of the effects of upholding versus rejecting Trump’s claim. In total, 94% of experts regard a decision upholding the immunity claim as a threat to democracy – including 64% who regard it as an extra­or­di­nary threat – and 93% regard rejecting the claim as a benefit to democracy. According to experts, the case to be argued before the Court in April will have profound con­se­quences for American democracy.

Public con­fi­dence in Supreme Court impartiality

We also asked the public whether they believe the Supreme Court can be trusted to make impartial decisions in Trump-related cases. The figure below shows the per­cent­age of the public overall, as well as among Democrats and Republicans, who are very or somewhat confident that the Supreme Court will make impartial decisions in Trump-related cases. Republican con­fi­dence, at 69%, far outpaces Democratic con­fi­dence, at 44%. Among the public as a whole, only a narrow majority of 54% has con­fi­dence in the Court’s impar­tial­i­ty in this area. 

Expert views on Trump federal trial schedule

As the November pres­i­den­tial election approach­es, the timing of Trump’s trials could be as con­se­quen­tial as their outcomes. We fielded our survey in February. At the time, Trump had appealed his immunity claim to the Supreme Court so the timing of his federal trial for seeking to overturn the 2020 election was in flux. We asked experts when the trial should take place. They over­whelm­ing­ly indicated that the trial should begin as soon as possible (51%) or be scheduled without regard for the electoral calendar (44%). Very few said the trial should only begin if it can be completed well before the election or should be postponed until afterward (3% and 2%, respec­tive­ly). After our data were collected, the Court agreed to hear the case, delaying Trump’s trial, and scheduled arguments for April 25, the last day of the term.

Perceptions of moti­va­tions of Trump and Biden prosecutors

Trump maintains that the criminal charges against him are polit­i­cal­ly motivated. To determine how widely that belief is held, we asked both experts and the public whether they agreed that “Trump would not have been pros­e­cut­ed if he were someone else.” In July 2023, we asked these questions about the hush money and documents cases, the only two that had been filed at that time. In February 2024, we asked about all four criminal cases against Trump. Given Trump’s claims of a double standard between the documents cases, we similarly asked par­tic­i­pants if they agreed that “Biden would have been pros­e­cut­ed for his handling of clas­si­fied documents if he were someone else.” In each case, agreement implies a belief that the prosecutor’s decision was affected by the identity of the target of the investigation.

The figure below shows the per­cent­ages of experts, the public overall, and of Democrats and Republicans among the public who say that Trump or Biden were treated dif­fer­ent­ly by pros­e­cu­tors because of their iden­ti­ties. For cases that we also surveyed in July, the figure shows changes in beliefs over time.

The New York hush money case stands out for the preva­lence of belief in its politi­ciza­tion. A total of 40% of experts and 56% of the public, including 32% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans, maintain that another person would not have been pros­e­cut­ed in the same situation. The decision not to bring charges against President Biden also attracts some suspicion. One-fifth of the experts regard it as poten­tial­ly motivated by Biden’s identity, as does a solid majority of the public overall, including 43% of Democrats and 88% of Republicans. In the other cases against Trump, the public is about evenly split overall but highly polarized by party. About four-fifths of Republicans say that Trump is being treated dif­fer­ent­ly compared to a third or less of Democrats. Only a few experts endorse this claim, however (13–16%) —  overall, they over­whelm­ing­ly reject the idea that the decisions to prosecute his handling of clas­si­fied documents or his efforts to overturn the 2020 election were influ­enced by his identity.

Where we can measure time trends (in the hush money and documents cases), Republican beliefs that Trump is being targeted have declined slightly but remain high. Democratic beliefs are far lower but have bumped upward, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the documents case where only 20% perceived targeting last summer but 34% do now. Among experts, we see increases on both the hush money and documents cases, most strongly on the former, where the share believing Trump is being treated dif­fer­ent­ly increased from 32% of expert respon­dents in July to 40% of experts surveyed in February. These shifts are troubling insofar as they suggest a decrease in con­fi­dence in the principle of equal treatment under the law.

Views of whether Trump and Biden committed crimes

We first surveyed experts and the public about the then-potential criminal cases against Trump in October 2022, sep­a­rate­ly asking whether par­tic­i­pants believed he had committed a crime in his (i) “handling of clas­si­fied documents after leaving the White House” and in his (ii) “efforts to change the result of the 2020 election.”1 In July 2023, we again asked about those cases as well as whether par­tic­i­pants thought Trump had committed a crime in his “handling of hush money payments to an adult film actress,” and whether Biden had committed a crime in his “handling of clas­si­fied documents after leaving office as Vice President.”

In our February 2024 survey, we asked again about the criminal cases against Trump as well as the recently dismissed inves­ti­ga­tion of Biden. The figure below shows the per­cent­age of respon­dents who regard Trump to have def­i­nite­ly or probably committed a crime on each item as well as the per­cent­age who believe Biden def­i­nite­ly or probably committed a crime in his handling of clas­si­fied documents. 

Among experts, belief that Trump committed a crime in his handling of clas­si­fied documents remains near-unanimous at 93% (just shy of July’s 94%). Perceptions among experts that he committed a crime in his efforts to overturn the election are only slightly lower at 91% (up slightly from 86% in July). Expert belief in Trump’s crim­i­nal­i­ty is lowest for the hush money case, where the per­cent­age of experts who think he committed a crime was  69% (similar to the 73% who said the same in July). Overall, 66% of experts indicate that Trump committed a crime in all three cases, while an addi­tion­al 24% say that he committed a crime in two of the cases. Finally, expert belief that Biden committed a crime in his handling of documents is far lower at 19%, though it notably increased from 12% in July’s survey despite Hur’s decision not to bring charges.

Public beliefs that crimes were committed are largely stable over time and fall far below experts for Trump and well above experts for Biden. Around half of the public believes Trump committed a crime in each of the instances we polled. The dif­fer­ences across cases are small, though the public is most persuaded in the Trump documents case (for which the most detailed evidence has been presented in the media) and least persuaded by the New York case (although 43% still believe that Trump committed a crime related to the hush money payment). Although none of the cases persuades a majority, a sub­stan­tial share of respon­dents (18–23%) indicate that they do not know whether Trump committed a crime in each case. As a result, the number of people who say that Trump committed a crime out­num­bers the number of people who say that he did not. The dis­crep­an­cy is largest for the documents case, in which 49% say he committed a crime whereas just 28% say he did not. 

For all these cases, public opinion is char­ac­ter­ized by deep partisan divides. The blue and red markers in the figure above show beliefs among Democratic and Republican respon­dents. Democrats are generally persuaded of Trump’s crim­i­nal­i­ty, with about three-quarters express­ing belief that Trump committed crimes in each case. By contrast, belief in Trump’s crim­i­nal­i­ty is low across the board among Republicans – a majority reject the idea that Trump committed crimes in each question surveyed. These changes are largely stable, though we observe a slight decline in the share of Republicans who believed Trump had committed a crime in the documents case to 21%. It had pre­vi­ous­ly more than doubled between October 2022 (9%) and June/July 2023 (25%), just weeks after Jack Smith’s indict­ment was unsealed, but this tra­jec­to­ry did not continue after the media’s focus shifted away from this story.

Current and future threats to democracy

Experts assess­ments of Congressional actions

Given concerns about partisan abuse of insti­tu­tion­al powers, we asked our experts to assess the actual or prospec­tive impact on U.S. democracy of the following con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tions and oversight activities:

  • Senate Armed Services Committee and House Committee on Oversight and Accountability investigation into safety record of the military’s V‑22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft

  • Senate Appropriations Committee hearings on U.S. military aid to Ukraine

  • House Oversight and Accountability Committee and House Judiciary Committee investigations of President Biden on financial corruption allegations

  • The House of Representatives impeaches the Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, on charges of refusal to enforce immigration laws at the southern border

  • House Education and the Workforce Committee hearings on anti-semitism on college campuses

  • House Committee on Education and the Workforce into allegations of scholarly plagiarism by then-President of Harvard University, Claudine Gay

Hearings on the Osprey’s safety record and aid to Ukraine reflect tra­di­tion­al Congressional oversight goals and were generally seen by experts as ben­e­fi­cial (44% and 47%, respec­tive­ly) or having no effect (56% and 49%, respectively). 

By contrast, activ­i­ties in the House of Representatives targeting the Biden admin­is­tra­tion attracted more skep­ti­cism. On February 14, two days before we initially fielded our survey, the FBI indicted the House Appropriations Committee’s main witness, Alexander Smirnov, for fab­ri­cat­ing cor­rup­tion alle­ga­tions against the Bidens. Forty-three percent of the experts regarded that inves­ti­ga­tion as a threat to democracy while only 13% regarded it as ben­e­fi­cial. Similarly, 42% of the experts regard the House’s impeach­ment of Alejandro Mayorkas, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, as a threat to democracy while only 2% see it as beneficial.

Two items on the House Education and Workforce Committee’s inves­ti­ga­tions into higher education drew more disparate assess­ments from the experts. Thirty-seven percent regarded the committee’s inves­ti­ga­tion of pla­gia­rism alle­ga­tions against Claudine Gay, the former president of Harvard, as a threat to democracy and 5% regarded it as ben­e­fi­cial. Opinion was most divided on the committee’s inves­ti­ga­tion into anti-semitism on uni­ver­si­ty campuses — 27% perceived a threat to democracy, 20% perceived a benefit, and 53% indicated it would have no effect.

Scenarios from a Trump second term

We also presented both the experts and the public with a set of hypo­thet­i­cal scenarios that could affect the status of U.S. democracy in a potential second Trump admin­is­tra­tion. We asked experts to rate the prob­a­bil­i­ty of each scenario taking place assuming Trump wins the election. For the public, we instead asked whether they would approve or dis­ap­prove of Trump taking the action in question. The scenarios in question, which we drew from media accounts, are listed below.2

  • The Trump administration withdraws the U.S. from NATO.3

  • The Trump administration directs the Department of Justice to investigate Joe Biden or another leading Democrat. 

  • The Trump administration invokes the Insurrection Act to deploy the military inside the United States for law enforcement and to quell domestic disturbances.

  • The Trump administration directs the Department of Justice to suspend ongoing prosecutions of one or more individuals accused of crimes related to the 2020 election or the events of January 6, 2021. 

  • The Trump administration fires special counsel Jack Smith.

  • Trump pardons one or more individuals accused of crimes related to the 2020 election or the events of January 6, 2021. 

  • Trump pardons himself. 

  • Trump attempts to stay in power beyond the end of his term in office in January 2029. 

The figure below plots each of the democracy-related items, showing the median prob­a­bil­i­ty estimate (from experts) on the hor­i­zon­tal axis and the per­cent­age of Republicans (red markers) and Democrats (blue markers) who approve of the action in question on the vertical axis. The dotted line con­nect­ing each red-blue pair reflects the partisan approval gap on that item.


Strikingly, a majority of Republicans endorse each demo­c­ra­t­ic norm-threat­en­ing action listed except for Trump attempt­ing to stay in power past the end of his term in January 2029, an act that only 32% endorse. Approval of other actions we surveyed among Republicans ranges from 56% for NATO with­draw­al to 84% for inves­ti­gat­ing Biden. Democrats over­whelm­ing­ly dis­ap­prove of each. Notably, experts believe that the actions which Trump’s base views most favorably are the ones that are most likely to happen — pardoning himself (83%), directing the Department of Justice to inves­ti­gate Biden or another Democrat (85%), pardoning or sus­pend­ing pros­e­cu­tions of people involved in crimes related to the 2020 election or January 6 (92% and 91%, respec­tive­ly), or firing special counsel Jack Smith (92%). 

In the figure below, we further dis­ag­gre­gate Republican respon­dents — the group that is most likely to approve of potential Trump actions threat­en­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic norms — by whether they consider them­selves to be more of a supporter of Trump or the Republican Party.


Republicans who consider them­selves to be more of a supporter of Trump are more likely to endorse each action in question than are those who consider them­selves to be more of a supporter of the Republican Party. Among this group, support is extremely high (69–92%) for every action listed except for Trump attempt­ing to uncon­sti­tu­tion­al­ly stay in power after the end of his term in 2029, which still attracts 41% support. However, we note that the gap between groups is rel­a­tive­ly small. In par­tic­u­lar, a majority of the Republicans who do not describe them­selves as primarily Trump sup­port­ers endorse each action in question except for NATO with­draw­al (40%) and him staying in power past con­sti­tu­tion­al limits (23%). 


Public con­fi­dence in elections

Voter con­fi­dence in the 2024 election

We asked respon­dents to report their con­fi­dence that everyone who is legally entitled to vote and seeks to do so will be able to suc­cess­ful­ly cast a ballot in the November 2024 elections and that their own vote, votes in their state, and votes nation­wide in that election will be counted as voters intended. The figure below reports the per­cent­age of people indi­cat­ing they are “very” or “somewhat confident” in each of these aspects of the 2024 election by party.

Confidence is high among Democrats – 80% think voters who are eligible will be able to vote and con­fi­dence in their own vote, votes in their state, and votes nation­wide being counted accu­rate­ly are very high at 91%, 91%, and 85%, respec­tive­ly. Beliefs about voter access are similar among Republicans (76%) but somewhat lower for their own vote (81%) and votes in their state (81%). Worryingly, just 54% of Republicans express con­fi­dence in the nation­wide vote count, though this total exceeds the 42% of Republicans who expressed con­fi­dence in the midterm national vote in our November 2021 survey at a similar point in that election cycle.

Public accep­tance of Biden’s victory in 2020

Once again, we asked Americans about whether they view the 2020 pres­i­den­tial election as legit­i­mate. The figure below shows the share of respon­dents across different partisan groups who state that Biden was “def­i­nite­ly” or “probably” the rightful winner.

In the first year that followed the 2020 election, attitudes among Republicans were stable. Across four surveys conducted in the year after the election (November 2020-November 2021), only about one quarter of Republicans agreed that Biden was right­ful­ly elected. The level of agreement shifted when we again asked the question in October 2022, increas­ing to approx­i­mate­ly 33%, and has remained stable in the 33–36% range in three sub­se­quent surveys conducted in November 2022, July 2023, and February 2024. As in previous survey waves, election denial is much higher among Republicans who say they are primarily sup­port­ers of Trump (a group which made up 51% of surveyed Republican respon­dents compared to 45% in July 2023). Only 19% of this group recognize Biden’s victory compared to 52% of those who say they are primarily sup­port­ers of the party. (Belief in the legit­i­ma­cy of Biden’s victory is much higher among inde­pen­dents and Democrats at 64% and 94%, respectively.)


The present and future of American democracy

Ratings of the state of U.S. democracy

As in each Bright Line Watch survey, we asked both expert and public respon­dents to rate the overall per­for­mance of U.S. democracy on a 0–100 scale. Expert ratings, which ticked up in November 2022 after the midterm elections, have sta­bi­lized in our two most recent surveys near their highest point since we began our surveys in 2017. In February 2024, the average expert rating was 69.6. The public overall is similarly opti­mistic, with an average rating of 56.9, which is among the highest in our time series. The public’s recent bump is driven by a sharp increase among Democrats, whose mean democracy ratings rose from 57.5 to 62.2 (Republican ratings remained flat at 55.2).

We also asked respon­dents to antic­i­pate the future per­for­mance of U.S. democracy in 2027 and 2032. Despite their current optimism, both experts and the public antic­i­pate demo­c­ra­t­ic decline in future years (as they did in our last survey). The results are plotted below. Expert concerns focus on the near term, with a projected drop from 69.6 now to 63.9 in 2027 and then stability at 63.6 in 2032. The public expects a smaller but ongoing decline over time (56.9 at present to 55.7 in 2027 and 54.5 in 2032), a trend that is driven mainly by Republicans (54.9 now versus 53.2 and 50.9 in 2027 and 2032, respec­tive­ly). Democratic pro­jec­tions, by contrast, are stable.

Finally, the February survey also asked expert and public par­tic­i­pants to sep­a­rate­ly project the state of American democracy in 2027 on the same 0–100 scale assuming that either Biden, Trump, or former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley wins the 2024 pres­i­den­tial election. The figure below shows how these pro­jec­tions vary by the outcome of the 2024 race for experts, for the public overall, and for Democrats and Republicans sep­a­rate­ly. Relative to their 2027 forecast of 64, experts clearly see Trump as a demo­c­ra­t­ic threat (with ratings of U.S. democracy dropping dra­mat­i­cal­ly to 47 if he wins) whereas either a Biden or Haley pres­i­den­cy would be regarded as improving U.S. democracy (increas­ing to 73 and 70, respectively). 

Among the public overall, spec­i­fy­ing any specific president depresses projected ratings relative to a generic pro­jec­tion for 2027, with Trump again perceived as the biggest threat. Public ratings also reflect a familiar partisan polar­iza­tion. Democrats project another Biden term as a slight boost to democracy (increas­ing from 62 to 68) but regard either Republican candidate as a demo­c­ra­t­ic liability, with the prospect of a second Trump term seen as far more damaging than that of a Haley pres­i­den­cy (35 and 54, respec­tive­ly). When we asked the same question in November 2022, Democrats perceived a potential Ron DeSantis admin­is­tra­tion as nearly as damaging as a second Trump admin­is­tra­tion (mean ratings of 42 and 31, respec­tive­ly). Republicans, by contrast, see Trump’s restora­tion to the Oval Office as a demo­c­ra­t­ic asset (increas­ing from 53 to 63), Biden as a demo­c­ra­t­ic liability of about equal magnitude (decreas­ing to 42), and Haley’s impact on democracy as neutral (52).

2024 nom­i­na­tion probabilities

As the data above demon­strate, per­cep­tions of the future of American democracy vary dra­mat­i­cal­ly depending on whom people expect to be president. Although neither pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion contest has been com­pet­i­tive so far, scenarios in which the fron­trun­ners are replaced due to age or legal jeopardy have attracted sub­stan­tial attention. In January, just as primary season was getting underway, many voters expressed skep­ti­cism that the 2024 election would be a rematch. We therefore asked both our experts and the American public to estimate the prob­a­bil­i­ty that Biden and Trump become the pres­i­den­tial nominees for their respec­tive parties. The figure below shows that the experts see little chance that either fron­trun­ner is displaced (medians of 94% for both).

Among the public overall, prob­a­bil­i­ty estimates are more dispersed, yielding lower median values, but partisans on each side are dif­fer­en­tial­ly confident in the chances of their own party’s fron­trun­ner. Democrats put Biden’s odds of capturing the Democratic nom­i­na­tion at 81% and Republicans give Trump an 88% prob­a­bil­i­ty of being the GOP nominee. By contrast, Democrats give Trump a 69% chance of being the Republican nominee and Republicans give Biden only 50–50 odds of rep­re­sent­ing the Democrats. Independents are less sanguine overall than partisans are about both can­di­dates, giving Trump a 71% chance and Biden just 50%.

Trump’s comments on immigrants

Former president Trump has repeat­ed­ly stated that immi­grants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” using language that has been linked to Adolf Hitler and other dictators. In polling, fewer than half of Americans, but a majority of Republicans, have said that they agree with this statement. The effect on their opinions of Trump are unknown, though. In a poll of Iowa Republicans who were likely to attend the caucuses in their state, 42% claimed the statement made them more likely to support Trump, not less. However, the political sci­en­tists Matt Graham and Alex Coppock have found that this question format typically induces people to report their level of support for a political figure like Trump, not the change in it. We therefore used the coun­ter­fac­tu­al question format developed by Graham and Coppock to estimate the effect of Trump’s remarks on public opinion of him. (They pre­vi­ous­ly found, in research with Soubhik Barari and Zoe Padgett, that Trump’s indict­ments had a slightly negative effect on primary vote intention among Republicans.) 

We first presented respon­dents with Trump’s “poisoning the blood of our country” statement and asked them whether they had a favorable or unfa­vor­able opinion of him. Across the entire sample, 24% of respon­dents said that they had a very favorable opinion of him, 24% had a somewhat favorable opinion, 13% had a somewhat unfa­vor­able opinion, and 39% had a very unfa­vor­able opinion.

Then, we asked respon­dents to tell us how they would have answered the same question if they had not heard about Trump’s comments. If Trump’s comments caused a loss of support, we would expect coun­ter­fac­tu­al support to be higher. Instead, we found no sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant change in favor­a­bil­i­ty (23% strongly favorable, 24% somewhat favorable, 16% somewhat unfa­vor­able, 38% very unfa­vor­able). The same pattern of attitude stability was observed among Republicans, whose views did not change mea­sur­ably overall (48% very favorable and 37% somewhat favorable at baseline versus 47% and 36%, respec­tive­ly, in the coun­ter­fac­tu­al format).

Contrary to polling using con­ven­tion­al question formats, our findings suggest that even extreme state­ments like Trump’s blood poisoning rhetoric are unlikely to affect attitudes toward him given the strength of people’s attitudes toward him and his history of con­tro­ver­sial statements.


Bright Line Watch conducted its twentieth survey of academic experts and its sev­en­teenth survey of the general public from February 15–23, 2024. Our public sample consisted of 2,798 par­tic­i­pants from the YouGov panel who were selected and weighted to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the U.S. adult pop­u­la­tion. We also surveyed 678 political science experts across a diverse range of subfields (5.8% 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 unweight­ed because we do not collect demo­graph­ic data to protect anonymity. Error bars in our graphs represent 95% con­fi­dence intervals. Data are available here.

The figure below shows expert like­li­hood assess­ments and public approval of Trump 2nd term scenarios that are not directly related to democracy. 

  1.  We also asked respon­dents if they thought Trump committed a crime as part of his role in the events of January 6, 2021, the breach of the U.S. Capitol. At the time, we antic­i­pat­ed that Special Counsel Jack Smith’s inves­ti­ga­tion could lead to charges broadly related to the January 6 events. The specific charges in Smith’s August 2023 indict­ment focus on the electoral process and, we think, are captured more precisely by our question on changing the result of the election. We note that the election question wording also broadly describes the rack­e­teer­ing charges filed in Fulton County, Georgia. 
  2. To avoid every item focusing on a demo­c­ra­t­ic norm-related issue, we included questions about actions Trump might take on four policy issues such as trade and taxes. Each par­tic­i­pant was shown a random subset of four demo­c­ra­t­ic scenarios and two policy scenarios. See Appendix for results on policy.
  3. Withdrawal from NATO would be a norm violation because it would con­tra­vene leg­is­la­tion passed by Congress in December 2023 pro­hibit­ing the U.S. from leaving the treaty without con­gres­sion­al approval.