Still miles apart: Americans and the state of U.S. democracy half a year into the Biden presidency
Bright Line Watch June 2021 surveys

As the country turns 245 years old, Americans have reasons to worry about the state of their democracy. In June 2021, we surveyed a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of Americans and an expert sample of political sci­en­tists on the per­for­mance of U.S. democracy, the threats it faces, and how their political rep­re­sen­ta­tives should address these matters.1 We find deep partisan polar­iza­tion in per­cep­tions of what is right and wrong with American democracy and the steps that should be taken to fix it. In addition, experts express reser­va­tions about current changes to election law at the state level. Still, we find some signs that Americans regard partisan attacks on election admin­is­tra­tion with skepticism.

Our key findings are:

  • Constitutional hardball politics like gerrymandering, packing the Supreme Court or blocking Court nominees, voter suppression, abolishing the filibuster, adding new states to the union, or refusing to certify election results enjoy little support among the public and, with few exceptions, among experts. However, these strategies appear to go unpunished by voters when used by elites.

  • Experts expect these tactics to be used more frequently in the years ahead, rating extreme partisan gerrymandering a near certainty; obstruction of Supreme Court nominations highly likely; and refusal to certify popular vote totals as a likely outcome as well. By contrast, the experts place low probability on hardball tactics that are more favored by Democrats, such as adding states to the union, abolishing the filibuster, or packing the Supreme Court.

  • Among the electoral reform proposals recently adopted or currently under consideration in the states, experts perceive grave threats from bills that encroach on the political independence of local election officials and that restrict mail voting.

  • Exposure to information about the official audit in Maricopa County, Arizona more than doubled confidence in the vote count in Republicans, suggesting that information about standard processes intended to verify the results of elections can be reassuring to skeptical members of the public. Surprisingly, exposure to news about the partisan “audit” there also increased confidence among Republicans somewhat, though this effect seems unlikely to persist when the supposed results of that process are announced.

  • The legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and Donald Trump’s actions afterward remain central to how Americans assess political candidates. In the past six months, Democrats and Republicans have not budged in how they reward or punish prospective candidates for voting to certify the election and for Trump’s impeachment. Independents did shift in favor of candidates who supported the certification of the 2020 vote and who supported transportation infrastructure spending.

  • Distressingly high proportions of respondents say they would be willing to secede from the United States to join a new union of states in their region. Support is higher among Republicans in Republican-dominated regions and among Democrats in Democrat-dominated regions, but the idea’s popularity has risen in some partisan groups and regions of the country since Biden’s inauguration. 

  • Experts rate Donald Trump’s continued refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election as highly abnormal and important.

Constitutional hardball

The June 2021 survey asked both our public and expert samples about their support for a range of practices that have come to be known as “con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball.” The term describes strate­gies by which political actors seek to extend their political power and gain advantage by actions that are within the formal bounds of con­sti­tu­tion­al doctrine but that break with long­stand­ing political practices. In October 2019, we reported on support for hardball politics. The current survey repeats some of those questions and adds new ones about tactics that have entered main­stream political dis­cus­sion more recently. These scenarios fall into four broad cat­e­gories: leg­isla­tive process, impeach­ment, the courts, and elections and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The list below contains our 12 con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball state­ments by category. 

Legislative process

  • A majority party in either chamber of Congress refusing to raise the limit on the amount of money the U.S. gov­ern­ment can legally borrow.
  • The majority party in the Senate abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster rule so it can pass leg­is­la­tion without minority party support.
  • The minority party in the Senate routinely using the fil­i­buster rule to block leg­is­la­tion supported only by the majority party.


  • A majority of the House of Representatives seeking to impeach a president because they believe he or she is unfit for office rather than because of specific evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors.


  • The majority party in the Senate refusing to consider any nom­i­na­tion by a president to fill an open seat on the Supreme Court.
  • A party that controls Congress and the pres­i­den­cy creating and filling new seats on the Supreme Court to change the partisan balance of power.

Elections and representation

  • A party that controls both chambers of Congress granting statehood to Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
  • A state political party drawing Congressional districts that ensure it will receive a share of seats much larger than its share of votes.
  • A state political party proposing measures that make it more difficult to vote, espe­cial­ly for members of the other party.
  • Local election officials refusing to certify the vote totals recorded in their area.
  • A state leg­is­la­ture naming electors to the Electoral College other than those des­ig­nat­ed by the popular vote in that state.
  • Congress refusing to certify pres­i­den­tial election results that have been submitted by the states.

Each survey respon­dent was shown all twelve state­ments in random order and asked to indicate “how appro­pri­ate or inap­pro­pri­ate you consider each scenario to be” on a four-point scale from “Entirely appro­pri­ate” to “Entirely inap­pro­pri­ate” or to indicate that they are not sure. The figure below shows the per­cent­age of respon­dents who rated each item on the list as mostly or entirely appro­pri­ate. Green markers show responses among our expert sample; blue and red markers show responses among Democrat and Republican members of the public, respec­tive­ly (separate graphs showing total public support versus experts and dis­ag­gre­gat­ing Democrats, Republicans, and inde­pen­dents in the public sample are provided in the Appendix). The items are ranked in ascending order of perceived appro­pri­ate­ness among the experts.

Several results are note­wor­thy. First, hardball tactics related to elections and rep­re­sen­ta­tion are the most con­sis­tent­ly and stren­u­ous­ly dis­ap­proved, par­tic­u­lar­ly three scenarios that have attracted sub­stan­tial attention since the 2020 election: 1) local officials refusing to certify recorded vote totals, 2) a state leg­is­la­ture naming electors to the Electoral College on some basis other than the popular vote in that state, or 3) Congress refusing to certify electoral results from the states. Partisans on both sides, as well as experts, strongly object to these tactics. 

Yet over­whelm­ing dis­ap­proval across the board is not suf­fi­cient to preclude hardball tactics: we also find strong oppo­si­tion to strate­gies that have become wide­spread in recent years. These include ger­ry­man­der­ing, adoption of policies that would make voting more difficult, and a Senate majority party refusing to consider a president’s Supreme Court nominees. The experts dis­ap­prove of all these practices along with sub­stan­tial majori­ties in both parties. Yet state leg­is­la­tures around the country are currently drafting or enacting laws that impose higher burdens on voters. Similarly, states with single-party control are preparing to again draft heavily ger­ry­man­dered electoral districts. Professed objec­tions notwith­stand­ing, recent expe­ri­ence provides no basis to expect that voters will punish politi­cians who pursue these tactics.

The figure also reveals a group of items related to leg­isla­tive pro­ce­dures that are arcane in the eyes of most citizens, attract modest expert support (well short of majori­ties), and generate sub­stan­tial partisan polar­iza­tion. This group includes the routine use of the fil­i­buster to block leg­isla­tive action; a con­gres­sion­al party refusing to raise the borrowing limit, and thus threat­en­ing gov­ern­ment shutdown and default, as a bar­gain­ing strategy; impeach­ment against a president on grounds of unfitness for office, rather than for a high crime or mis­de­meanor; and packing the Supreme Court. Two of these items, routine fil­i­busters and gov­ern­ment shutdowns, attract bare majority support among Republicans, as does impeach­ment for unfitness among Democrats. But majori­ties of experts oppose all these practices, along with even larger shares of one or the other party.

Two hardball moves are supported by majori­ties of the experts and Democrats in the public sample — granting statehood to Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico (83% among experts and 62% of Democrats) and abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster in the U.S. Senate (73% and 52%, respec­tive­ly). However, these items are also the hardball tactics for which partisan polar­iza­tion is most dramatic — only 11% of Republicans support abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster and only 17% support statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico. Interestingly, though partisan divisions over statehood have remained rel­a­tive­ly stable since 2019, pref­er­ences over abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster have flipped. In 2019, roughly 20% of Democrats (Trump opponents) supported abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster whereas nearly half of Republicans (Trump sup­port­ers) did. Today, Republicans over­whelm­ing­ly favor keeping the fil­i­buster while most Democrats favor ending it. Expert support for abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster has also increased from 47% to 73%. 

Expert assess­ments of like­li­hoods and threats

We also asked our expert sample to rate the like­li­hood of some hardball-related events and to assess the con­se­quences of recent changes to electoral law in the states. We first asked our expert respon­dents to estimate the prob­a­bil­i­ty that the following events would occur within the next year:

  • The Democratic majority in the Senate abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster rule so it can pass leg­is­la­tion without Republican support.
  • The Democrats using their current control of Congress and the pres­i­den­cy to create and fill new seats on the Supreme Court to change the partisan balance of power.
  • The Democrats using their control of both chambers of Congress to grant statehood to Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
  • A state political party drawing Congressional districts that ensure it will receive a share of seats much larger than its share of votes.

We also asked experts to rate the prob­a­bil­i­ty that the following events would occur before the next pres­i­den­tial inau­gu­ra­tion (January 20, 2025):

  • The Republican Party in the Senate blocking con­fir­ma­tion of an open Supreme Court seat for one or more years.
  • The Democratic Party in the Senate elim­i­nat­ing the fil­i­buster for voting rights legislation.
  • One or more states adopting multi-member districts. 

Finally, we asked experts to rate the prob­a­bil­i­ty of the following events occurring during or after the 2024 pres­i­den­tial election:

  • Local electoral officials refusing to certify election results that reflect recorded vote totals.
  • A state leg­is­la­ture naming electors to the Electoral College other than those des­ig­nat­ed by the popular vote in that state.
  • Congress refusing to certify pres­i­den­tial election results that have been submitted by the states.

The figure below reports the median prob­a­bil­i­ty estimate and the density of prob­a­bil­i­ty estimates across the available range of 0% to 100% for each scenario among our expert respon­dents. Items are listed in descend­ing order of estimated median prob­a­bil­i­ty. In line with our dis­cus­sion above, the experts are nearly unanimous in their expec­ta­tion that state parties will engage in partisan ger­ry­man­der­ing (97%). They also over­whelm­ing­ly antic­i­pate Senate Republicans blocking a Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion for at least a year between now and 2025 (72%), a scenario that presumes the Republicans regain control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections and/or that the Democrats lack unity in advancing nominations.

According to experts, the next most likely events are asso­ci­at­ed with the 2024 pres­i­den­tial election: local officials refusing to certify vote counts (55%) and a state leg­is­la­ture naming alter­na­tive electors (46%). These expec­ta­tions are likely based on local- and state-level Republican activism across the country against supposed threats to election integrity. Despite an absence of evidence that mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion or fraud are wide­spread, party activists and many Republican politi­cians are advancing claims that electoral admin­is­tra­tion and outcomes (when Democrats win) are untrust­wor­thy. That drumbeat appears to have persuaded our experts that, in at least some local­i­ties and perhaps some states, the 2024 election results will be rejected. Expectations that Congress would refuse to certify the election result are only slightly lower (39%).

Although experts over­whelm­ing­ly favor elim­i­nat­ing the fil­i­buster (see above), they are not sanguine about the prospects for doing so in general or as a targeted maneuver to advance voting rights leg­is­la­tion (40% in either case). The experts attach lower expec­ta­tions still to prospects for two other con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball tactics favored by Democrats — granting statehood to Washington, DC and Puerto Rico (30%) and enlarging the Supreme Court (25%). Finally, we asked about the prospects of an electoral change allowing states to use multi-member districts in con­gres­sion­al elections. The experts rate this proposal, much loved by political reformers, as least likely of all (13%).

We also asked experts to assess the effect of the following changes to electoral law on US democracy:

  • Reducing the number of ballot drop boxes and increas­ing restric­tions on when and how ballots can be dropped off
  • Barring non-election workers from providing food and water to voters waiting in line
  • Increasing restric­tions on eli­gi­bil­i­ty to vote by mail and the dis­tri­b­u­tion of mail ballots
  • Giving state leg­is­la­tures more control over state election boards
  • Empowering state election boards to suspend county election officials
  • Preventing counties from offering 24-hour or drive-through early voting
  • Requiring voters to provide state-issued ID with absentee ballot appli­ca­tions or absentee ballots

Experts could indicate whether they expected each reform to benefit democracy, have no impact on democracy, or threaten democracy. The figure below sum­ma­rizes the results. A number of patterns emerge. First, each of these state-level policy changes is regarded by our experts as more damaging than ben­e­fi­cial for democracy. In par­tic­u­lar, proposals that would make it more difficult to vote (by restrict­ing ballot drop-off and eli­gi­bil­i­ty to vote by mail) and that could politi­cize the admin­is­tra­tion of elections (by increas­ing state leg­isla­tive control of election boards and by empow­er­ing such boards to suspend local election officials) were regarded as threats to democracy by more than two-thirds of experts and as benefits by less than 10%. Other changes were seen as less con­se­quen­tial, though still poten­tial­ly harmful. Banning people from bringing food or water to voters waiting in line is regarded as ben­e­fi­cial by only 4% of respon­dents and as a threat by 41%, but 55% regard these laws as not affecting American democracy. Voter ID require­ments and the elim­i­na­tion of 24-hour drive-through voting are regarded as threats by near-majori­ties and benefits by only a few, but sub­stan­tial shares of experts regard them as not having much impact. 

For respon­dents who expected a threat or a benefit from a given reform, our survey further allowed them to rate its degree (as little, moderate, serious, or grave/extraordinary). The experts perceive the greatest danger from efforts to change electoral admin­is­tra­tion. Even more than barriers to voting, reforms to increase political control over election boards and local officials are regarded as pre­sent­ing grave or serious threats to democracy by 58% and 61% of the experts, respec­tive­ly. Over three quarters of experts also view restric­tions on eli­gi­bil­i­ty to vote by mail and the dis­tri­b­u­tion of mail ballots as posing a threat to democracy, though rel­a­tive­ly fewer believe that such pro­vi­sions would present a serious or grave threat (42%).  

Maricopa audit experiment

The June 2021 survey included an exper­i­ment to test the effects of efforts to undermine accep­tance of the result of the 2020 election. Numerous GOP officials at the state and federal level are ques­tion­ing whether Joe Biden was legit­i­mate­ly elected and using these charges to justify changes to state laws that curtail the inde­pen­dence of local electoral officials, poten­tial­ly bringing electoral admin­is­tra­tion under partisan control. 

Our exper­i­ment focuses on the ongoing Republican Party “audit” of votes in Maricopa County, Arizona. We sought to test how news of a partisan process ques­tion­ing electoral outcomes would affect con­fi­dence in electoral integrity. Maricopa is the largest county in a state that swung from Republican in 2016 to Democratic in 2020. The county conducted multiple audits after the 2020 election, some pro­ce­du­ral­ly uncon­tro­ver­sial, others politi­cized and contested. The initial audits were automatic, given the closeness of the vote count, and conducted first by the Secretary of State. Subsequently, the county’s Board of Supervisors conducted tests of Maricopa’s vote-counting machines. None of these inves­ti­ga­tions showed any evidence of problems, but, in March 2021, the Republican caucus in the Arizona State Senate com­mis­sioned an addi­tion­al audit of the Maricopa ballots, hiring a firm with dubious expertise, and whose CEO endorsed con­spir­a­cy theories about the election, to conduct the process. At the time that our survey was in the field, the Maricopa “audit” remained incom­plete and unre­solved.

To estimate the effect of a pro­ce­du­ral­ly legit­i­mate audit and a partisan pseudo-audit on con­fi­dence in that result, we randomly assigned our survey respon­dents to one of three con­di­tions. A third were presented with the following information:

Maricopa County is a large county in Arizona in which Phoenix is located. In the 2020 election, Joe Biden received 49.81% of the vote in Maricopa County and Donald Trump received 47.65% of the vote.

Another third of our par­tic­i­pants were provided the basic infor­ma­tion above and then asked to read the following news story recount­ing the unevent­ful, con­fir­ma­to­ry audits:2

Maricopa County has already conducted multiple audits of the 2020 election

Before and after every election, it’s standard procedure in Maricopa County to conduct a “logic and accuracy” test on election equipment. In 2020, those tests turned up no issues. State law also mandates a hand-count audit of a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant sample of ballots after each election to be compared to the machine count. That, too, came up with 100% accuracy, according to county election officials.

In January, after waves of protests, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved two addi­tion­al audits of election equipment. The board hired two inde­pen­dent firms, Pro V&V and SLI Compliance, which are certified by the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission. The firms conducted their separate audits in February and found no issues. 

The audits included tests for malicious software and hardware, source codes, network and internet con­nec­tiv­i­ty, and accuracy to detect vote switching. Observers from both parties were invited to attend, and the audits were live streamed. 

Finally, one third of survey respon­dents were presented with the basic infor­ma­tion about Maricopa, then asked to read this news story describ­ing the partisan “audit”:

The Arizona GOP’s Maricopa County audit

Although every state has certified its results, the Republican-con­trolled state Senate in Arizona has under­tak­en a full hand recount and audit of the ballots and voting machines in Maricopa, the state’s largest county, a move that has been fre­quent­ly praised by former president Trump. 

By subpoena, the state Senate took pos­ses­sion of 2.1 million ballots and nearly 400 election machines and turned them over to be audited by companies that include one whose CEO promoted debunked election fraud theories after the election. The majority-Republican county board of super­vi­sors vehe­ment­ly objected to the action and pointed to the multiple audits of ballots and machines that Arizona had already completed that had found no issues. 

In response to a subpoena from the state Senate, the county board argued the leg­is­la­ture had no right under state law to access private ballots and election machines. The GOP-led Senate tried to hold the board in contempt, but fell a vote short. 

After reading the materials, par­tic­i­pants were asked how confident they were that the official count of votes for president in Maricopa County was correct. The figure below illus­trates the per­cent­ages of respon­dents who were “very confident” or “somewhat confident” in the count in each condition (as opposed to “not too confident” or “not at all confident”).3 

Democratic con­fi­dence in the count is high and not mea­sur­ably affected by infor­ma­tion about audits.  The treat­ments have no sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant effects among inde­pen­dents either. Among Republicans, however, exposure to infor­ma­tion about the official audit more than doubled con­fi­dence in the vote count, which increased from 22% to 48%. These results suggest that infor­ma­tion about standard processes intended to verify the results of elections can be reas­sur­ing to Republicans who might otherwise be sym­pa­thet­ic to the claims of electoral fraud and irreg­u­lar­i­ties that President Trump and his allies so fre­quent­ly make.

Exposure to the news story about the fracas over the partisan “audit” also increased con­fi­dence in the count relative to the baseline condition, but only to 31%, 17 per­cent­age points less than the official audit. The role of Republicans in the process may have been initially reas­sur­ing to co-partisans. However, the news article does not discuss the ultimate outcome of the pseudo-audit, which is unknown at this time but widely expected to question the final vote tally. Such an outcome seems more likely to reduce voter con­fi­dence among co-partisans than to increase it.

Candidate choice experiment

Six months after leaving office, Donald Trump remains a political lightning rod, par­tic­u­lar­ly his false nar­ra­tives about the 2020 election and his role in the January 6 insur­rec­tion at the U.S. Capitol. We are par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in whether Republican voters’ ardor for Trump, and for can­di­dates who defend him, has cooled since the end of his presidency. 

To explore this question, we repeated a candidate choice exper­i­ment that we first conducted in our January/February 2021 survey, which asked respon­dents to choose between paired hypo­thet­i­cal Republican can­di­dates “in an upcoming election.” Each candidate was defined by a profile con­sist­ing of their name (which signaled both gender and race/ethnicity), their par­ti­san­ship (Republican in each case), and their support for or oppo­si­tion to gov­ern­ment spending for COVID relief and for trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture, cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the 2020 pres­i­den­tial election results, and Trump’s second impeach­ment (which ended with his acquittal by the Senate in February 2021). Each par­tic­i­pant in our exper­i­ment chose among three pairs of can­di­dates whose attrib­ut­es (except par­ti­san­ship) were randomly assigned.4In a given pairing, a par­tic­i­pant might be asked to choose between a white Republican woman who favored both spending bills, supported cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the election, and opposed impeach­ment and a Hispanic Republican man with similar positions on the spending bills but who opposed both cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and impeach­ment. The next pairing would present two more can­di­dates with randomly assigned attrib­ut­es and positions. 

The design allows us to estimate the effect of each attribute in the can­di­dates’ profiles on the prob­a­bil­i­ty that the respon­dent would support him or her and how the effects of those attrib­ut­es differ across different types of respon­dents. For example, we can estimate the distinct effect of sup­port­ing impeach­ment across Democrats, Republicans, and political inde­pen­dents. Finally, by repeating the exper­i­ment we can compare current attitudes with those from last winter to see which values have changed and which remain stable.

The figure below shows the marginal effect, for Democrats, Republicans, and inde­pen­dents, of a candidate’s race/ethnicity (Black, Latino, or white), gender (woman or man), and policy positions (sup­port­ing COVID relief, trans­porta­tion spending, election cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, and impeach­ment) on the like­li­hood of pre­fer­ring one Republican candidate over another. The circular markers indicate results from the January/February survey; tri­an­gu­lar markers indicate the more recent June survey. The estimate for each item, which is known as the Average Marginal Component Effect, can be inter­pret­ed as the change in like­li­hood of voting for that candidate, all else equal, if the candidate moves from the baseline category to the category listed in the figure. 

The top of the figure shows the estimates for race/ethnicity and gender. All else equal, Republican par­tic­i­pants and inde­pen­dents are slightly less likely to vote for a Black candidate than are Democratic par­tic­i­pants, but the scope of the effects here are rel­a­tive­ly modest. The effects of can­di­dates’ policy positions are far greater in magnitude than those of personal attrib­ut­es. Candidates who supported spending on COVID relief are favored over those who opposed it among all groups, with the strongest effects among Democrats (14 points) followed by inde­pen­dents (10 points) and Republicans (6 points). Those effects were even larger in February when the COVID relief issue was more salient (18, 12, and 11 points, respec­tive­ly). Transportation infra­struc­ture spending is asym­met­ri­cal­ly polarized by party: Democrats strongly favor can­di­dates who support it (13 points) whereas Republicans are indif­fer­ent (the impact of a candidate’s support for trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture spending is sta­tis­ti­cal­ly indis­cernible from zero). Independents, notably, have moved from indif­fer­ence on infra­struc­ture spending in January/February to support (6 points) in June.

The largest effects by far come from cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the 2020 election and support for former President Trump’s second impeach­ment. Democratic par­tic­i­pants are vastly more likely to support a candidate who voted to certify the election (29 points) and in favor of impeach­ment (22 points) than one who opposed these items, whereas Republicans punish each of those positions severely (-12 and ‑31 points, respec­tive­ly). Equally striking, neither Democrats nor Republicans have budged since last winter on these issues. The estimated effects in the June exper­i­ment are almost identical to what they were last January/February. These issues have lost no salience among committed partisans. 

But not every­thing has remained frozen in the inter­ven­ing months. In January/February, inde­pen­dents were only 2 points more likely to support a candidate who affirmed the election than one who refused to do so, but now they favor the affirming candidate by 9 points. In January/February, inde­pen­dents punished can­di­dates who supported impeach­ment by ‑7 points; in June, that sanction shrank to ‑3 points (although this latter shift falls short of sta­tis­ti­cal significance). 

In general, our repeated candidate choice exper­i­ment shows remark­able stasis among partisans, who are both miles apart and solidly locked into their pref­er­ences. But we also find some dis­cernible movement among inde­pen­dents, who have moved in the direction of positions favored by Democrats on infra­struc­ture spending and on the legit­i­ma­cy of the 2020 election.


President Biden made it a signature goal to reunite a country scarred by partisan and regional divides. Our surveys seek to assess whether the animus that char­ac­ter­ized the Trump era persists. We therefore repeated a question from our January/February 2021 survey asking respon­dents in our public sample about their support for breaking up the United States. As in last winter’s survey, we asked respon­dents the following:

Would you support or oppose [your state] seceding from the United States to join a new union with [list of states in new union]?” 5

We con­struct­ed five prospec­tive new unions and inserted the relevant states for respon­dents into the question wording above. For example, a par­tic­i­pant from California in our survey would be asked about joining a new union along with Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska. These sets are provided below:

  • Pacific: California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, and Alaska
  • Mountain: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico
  • South: Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee
  • Heartland: Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska
  • Northeast: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia

As in our previous report, we caution that this survey item reflects initial reactions by respon­dents about an issue that they are very unlikely to have con­sid­ered carefully. Secession is a genuinely radical propo­si­tion and expres­sions of support in a survey may map only loosely onto will­ing­ness to act toward that end. We include the question because it taps into respon­dents’ com­mit­ments to the American political system at the highest level and with reference to a concrete alter­na­tive (regional unions). 

Support for secession under the specific hypo­thet­i­cal unions format is illus­trat­ed in the map below. As in the previous survey, levels of expressed support for secession are arrest­ing­ly high, with 37% of respon­dents overall indi­cat­ing will­ing­ness to secede. Within each region, the dominant partisan group is most sup­port­ive of secession. Republicans are most seces­sion­ist in the South and Mountain regions whereas it is Democrats on the West Coast and in the Northeast. In the narrowly divided Heartland region, it is partisan inde­pen­dents who find the idea most attractive. 

These patterns are con­sis­tent from our January/February survey, but the changes since then are troubling. Our previous survey was fielded just weeks after the January 6 uprising. By this summer, we antic­i­pat­ed, political tempers may have cooled — not nec­es­sar­i­ly as a result of any great rec­on­cil­i­a­tion but perhaps from sheer exhaus­tion after the relent­less drama of Trump. For instance, the historian Heather Cox Richardson posited that sustained con­sid­er­a­tion of the Big Lie narrative would diminish political ardor among Trump sup­port­ers, which she related to waning popular support for secession in the Confederacy during the spring of 1861. 

Yet rather than support for secession dimin­ish­ing over the past six months, as we expected, it rose in every region and among nearly every partisan group. The jump is most dramatic where support was already highest (and has the greatest his­tor­i­cal precedent) — among Republicans in the South, where secession support leapt from 50% in January/February to 66% in June. Support among Republicans in the Mountain region increased as well, by 7 points, from 36% to 43%. Among Democrats in the West, a near-majority of 47% (up 6 points) supports a schism, as do 39% (up 5 points) in Northeast. Support jumped 9 points among inde­pen­dents in the Heartland as well, reaching 43%. Even sub­or­di­nate partisan groups appear to find secession more appealing now than they did last winter, though only increases for Democrats in the South, Heartland, and Mountain regions are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly dis­cernible at the 0.05 sig­nif­i­cance level. The broad and increas­ing will­ing­ness of respon­dents to embrace these alter­na­tives is a cause for concern.

Overall per­for­mance of democracy

As with prior surveys, we asked our respon­dents to rate the overall per­for­mance of American democracy on a 100-point scale. The figure below reports the average ratings for Democrats and Republicans in the public sample and for experts going back to February 2017. 

The experts (green) con­sis­tent­ly rate American democracy more pos­i­tive­ly than the public does, but also broadly regarded Trump’s pres­i­den­cy as a threat to democracy. Democracy ratings among the experts accord­ing­ly jumped in early 2019 after the Republican Party lost control of the U.S. House and have risen again, from 61 to 68 on the 100-point scale, in surveys conducted after he lost the White House. Assessments among the public overall (purple) are rel­a­tive­ly stable, although they, too, have inched up slightly in recent surveys, with a net increase from 53 to 55 since last October, on the eve of the last election. The public’s overall rating masks variance at the partisan level. Republicans con­sis­tent­ly rated U.S. democracy higher than Democrats through­out Trump’s pres­i­den­cy, but their ordering switched after Trump’s defeat to Joe Biden. In the June 2021 survey, democracy ratings rose slightly relative to January/February 2021 among Republicans (48 to 53) and did not change sig­nif­i­cant­ly among inde­pen­dents (48 to 50) or Democrats (60 in both surveys).


We continued to survey experts about the normality and impor­tance of events that have taken place in recent months. The ratings they provided are plotted on the figure below, which iden­ti­fies a number of events that experts rate as rel­a­tive­ly normal and important (e.g., the U.S. sending vaccines abroad), one event that experts rate as rel­a­tive­ly abnormal and unim­por­tant (Donald Trump’s use of a since-shuttered blog to cir­cum­vent social media bans), and a number of events rated as both abnormal and important. We focus on the last category, which appears in the upper right quadrant of the figure. 

The area shaded in gray above rep­re­sents the most extreme cases — the events experts rated as mostly abnormal to abnormal and as mostly important to important on average. We zoom in on that area in the figure below, which plots events in that range that experts rated in our most recent survey wave along with all the com­pa­ra­ble events experts rated during the Trump pres­i­den­cy. Each abnormal and important event iden­ti­fied in this survey concerns the results of the 2020 election, the January 6 insur­rec­tion, or sub­se­quent efforts to change election laws at the state level. Trump’s continued rejection of the legit­i­ma­cy of his election defeat stands out to experts as the most abnormal and important. However, most concern actions taken by other party actors — five of the seven events describe steps taken by other Republicans at the local, state, or federal level rather than Trump or admin­is­tra­tion officials.


Bright Line Watch surveys on the state of America’s democracy, June 2021

From June 26-July 2, 2021, Bright Line Watch conducted its fifteenth survey of academic experts, and tenth of the general public, on the quality of democracy in the United States. Our public sample consisted of 2,750 survey par­tic­i­pants from the YouGov sample who were selected and weighted to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the U.S. adult pop­u­la­tion. We also surveyed 327 political science experts across a diverse range of subfields (3% 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 15 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 three 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 (lists of both are below), and a final set of questions about the degree to which events posed a threat to democracy. 

How well do the following state­ments describe the United States as of today?

  • 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
  1. Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners deter­mined without pervasive fraud or manipulation
  2. All adult citizens have equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote
  3. Voter par­tic­i­pa­tion in elections is generally high
  4. Elections are free from foreign influence
  5. The geo­graph­ic bound­aries of electoral districts do not sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly advantage any par­tic­u­lar political party
  6. All votes have equal impact on election outcomes
  7. Parties and can­di­dates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies
  8. All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights
  9. Government does not interfere with jour­nal­ists or news organizations
  10. Government effec­tive­ly prevents private actors from engaging in polit­i­cal­ly-motivated violence or intimidation
  11. Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression
  12. Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in peaceful protest
  13. Government officials are legally sanc­tioned for misconduct
  14. Government officials do not use public office for private gain
  15. Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents
  16. Even when there are dis­agree­ments about ideology or policy, political leaders generally share a common under­stand­ing of relevant facts
  17. Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond con­sti­tu­tion­al limits
  18. The leg­is­la­ture is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
  19. The judiciary is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power
  20. The elected branches respect judicial independence
  21. Elected officials seek com­pro­mise with political opponents
  22. Political com­pe­ti­tion occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism
  23. Information about the sources of campaign funding is available to the public
  24. Public policy is not deter­mined by large campaign contributions
  25. Citizens can make their opinions heard in open debate about policies that are under consideration
  26. Citizens have access to infor­ma­tion about can­di­dates that is relevant to how they would govern
  27. Law enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials or their asso­ciates are free from political influence or interference
  28. Government sta­tis­tics and data are produced by experts who are not influ­enced by political considerations
  29. The law is enforced equally for all persons
  30. Politicians who lose free and fair elections will concede defeat

Political events questions

In this series of questions, we ask how normal or abnormal and how important or unim­por­tant recent political events are.

Is this normal or abnormal?

  • Normal
  • Mostly normal
  • Borderline normal
  • Mostly abnormal
  • Abnormal

Is this unim­por­tant or important?

  • Unimportant
  • Mostly unim­por­tant
  • Semi-important
  • Mostly important
  • Important
  1. House Republicans oust Liz Cheney from lead­er­ship for calling out Trump’s false election claims
  2. House votes to remove Marjorie Taylor Greene from com­mit­tees for promoting con­spir­a­cy theories
  3. Cuomo’s top aides admit state hid data on nursing home deaths
  4. Withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan
  5. US rejoins Paris climate agreement
  6. Congress passes COVID relief package on party-line votes in both House and Senate
  7. Major League Baseball moves its 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta to protest Georgia voting reform bill
  8. Derek Chauvin is convicted of murdering George Floyd
  9. New CDC guide­lines endorse fully vac­ci­nat­ed indi­vid­u­als not wearing masks in most places
  10. A new Georgia law reduces respon­si­bil­i­ties for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger
  11. Senate Republicans block a plan for an inde­pen­dent com­mis­sion on Capitol riot
  12. Trump launches new com­mu­ni­ca­tions platform after being banned from Twitter, Facebook [deleted FB oversight, didn’t actually uphold it as such but instead kicked it back to company]
  13. Biden admin­is­tra­tion imposes new economic sanctions on Russia over cyberspying
  14. US sends initial allotment of 25 million vaccines abroad
  15. Biden declares mass killing of Armenians a genocide
  16. Biden, speaking with Netanyahu, asserts Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’
  17. Biden admin­is­tra­tion increases support for managing arrival of unac­com­pa­nied children at border
  18. Texas Democrats walk out of state leg­is­la­ture over restric­tive Republican voting law
  19. Biden meets with Mexican president amid migration issues
  20. Biden visits Tulsa for the cen­ten­ni­al of the Tulsa Race Massacre
  21. House Democrats pass elections bill, H.R.1
  22. Biden calls for an inves­ti­ga­tion into the pos­si­bil­i­ty that COVID leaked from a Chinese laboratory
  23. Former President Trump continues to publicly reject the legit­i­ma­cy of his election defeat
  24. Former President Trump promotes the idea that he will be “rein­stat­ed” in office after “audits” this summer
  25. Arizona Republicans hire a firm called Cyber Ninjas to conduct an “audit” of the Maricopa County election results in 2020
  26. Legislatures in Georgia, Texas, and other states pass laws creating new restric­tions on voting access

Additional figures

Support for con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball tactics — expert versus public attitudes

Support for con­sti­tu­tion­al hardball tactics — public attitudes by partisan identification

Maricopa County audit exper­i­ment — Results for “Biden rightful winner” question

Performance across dimen­sions of democracy


  1. The survey firm, YouGov, admin­is­tered our public survey from June 16–26, 2021. We collected responses from 2,750 Americans over this period. From  June 16, 2021 to July 2, 2021, we surveyed 327 political sci­en­tists who con­sti­tute our expert sample.
  2. These news accounts were taken from The Arizona GOP’s Maricopa County audit: What to know about it (CBS, May 9, 2021). Text from these news stories were condensed to produce more compact readings for our survey participants.
  3. Participants were also asked whether they con­sid­ered Joe Biden to be the rightful winner of the vote in Maricopa County. Responses were similar to those for con­fi­dence and are shown in the Appendix.
  4. Democratic leg­is­la­tors uniformly supported cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and impeach­ment so we tested support for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and impeach­ment only among hypo­thet­i­cal Republican can­di­dates, who might plausibly have taken different positions.
  5. The response options were: Strongly support, Somewhat support, Somewhat oppose, Strongly oppose. For sim­plic­i­ty, we group responses in the map by support versus opposition.