Nearly two years after Donald Trump launched his relentless and baseless assault on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election — a scheme that culminated in his supporters’ Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol — a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll shows that less than half of Americans (46%) now believe that candidates “should commit in advance to accepting the results” of this year’s midterm elections.
Instead, a majority of Americans either say that candidates should not (19%) or that they’re “not sure” (35%).
Among voters who cast their ballots for Trump in 2020, meanwhile, just a third (33%) say candidates should agree in advance to accept the results in this fall’s elections.
The idea that democracy can only function if both sides agree to honor the outcome of an election has long served as one of the cornerstones of American politics. But the survey of 1,566 US adults, conducted online from Sept. 23 to 27, suggests that controversy and uncertainty threaten the old consensus.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post asked 19 “Republican candidates in competitive races for governor and Senate … whether they would accept the results of their contests.”
A dozen “declined to say,” according to the Post.
The new Yahoo News/YouGov poll shows that across a range of questions testing Americans’ attitudes toward election denial heading into the 2022 midterms, about 20% to 25% — the vast majority of them Trump voters — are deeply skeptical of the legitimacy of US elections, while another 20% to 30% say they’re not sure what to think.
About half the country, in other words, could be considered at least open to rejecting the election results.
Even when Americans are asked point-blank what should happen this fall “once all the votes are counted and the process is done,” the number who say “The candidate with fewer votes should concede the election” (55%) barely clears the halfway mark.
Conversely, more than 1 in 5 Americans (21%) say “The candidate with fewer votes should continue to challenge the election if they believe it was wrongly decided.” Another 23% say they’re unsure.
Among Trump voters, just 44% say they agree with the proposition that the candidate with fewer votes should concede the election — a basic rule that has defined US democracy for centuries. Nearly as many Trump voters (38%) say candidates with fewer votes at the end of the process should continue to challenge the results. Another 18% report that they are sure.
Likewise, nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) say “More candidates should challenge elections like Donald Trump,” while 32% are unsure. Again, that leaves less than half (45%) who say “Fewer candidates should challenge elections.”
What kinds of election challenges are now considered legitimate? The Yahoo News/YouGov survey suggests that for many Americans, the range of options open appears to have expanded significantly in the wake of Trump’s explosive efforts to overturn the 2020 results.
Presented with an array of choices, by far the largest number of US adults (62%) say that “demanding a recount” — a familiar and widely accepted form of redress — is legitimate. Likewise, 30% say “filing a suit” in court is also legitimate.
Meanwhile, a surprising number of Americans also select as legitimate other ways to challenge an election that have not historically been part of US political culture:
● 10% of Americans select “Demand that state legislatures refuse to certify the results.”
● 9% of Americans select “Declare the election illegitimate.”
● 8% of Americans select “Demand that election officials overturn the results.”
● 5% of Americans select “Encourage supporters to take up arms against the government.”
Perhaps most unsettling: A full 21% of Americans choose at least one of these undemocratic methods as a legitimate means of challenging an election. Among Trump voters, that number rises to 29%, yet even 12% of voters who support President Biden say the same — underscoring how an election denial “arms race” could escalate, once neither side trusts the other to play by the rules.
The poll hints at how that kind of escalation could unfold in the future. Just half (50%) of Americans now say they would not “trust a candidate who refused to accept the results of the 2020 election to oversee future elections in your state”; the other half either say they would trust such a candidate (20%) or that they’re not sure (29%).
Among Trump voters, 47% say they would trust an election denier to oversee future elections. Just 17% say they wouldn’t.
According to a recent FiveThirtyEight analysis, 201 of the 552 Republican nominees running for office in 2022 have “fully denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election” — meaning that 60% of Americans will have an election denier on their ballot this fall. Many will get elected. Some will oversee future elections.
If those officials enable “more candidates” on their own side to “challenge elections like Donald Trump,” and if they ultimately help overturn some of those elections, chaos could ensue. Four out of five Americans (81%) say they are either “very” (42%) or “somewhat” (38%) worried about the future of US democracy — with a nearly identical level of worry among Democrats (83%), Republicans (82%) and independents (81%). Each side of the United States’ political divide perceives the other as a threat to democracy.
At the same time, just a third of Americans (33%) think this year’s election will be “free and fair,” 28% do not and 39% are unsure. And while many pundits hoped that post-2020 passions would cool with time , public sentiment only seems to be trending in the other direction. In November 2020, 46% of registered voters did not think there would be “enough fraud [in the upcoming election] to influence the outcome.” Now that number is 43%.
The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,566 US adults interviewed online from Sept. 23 to Sept. 27, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or nonvote) and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.7%.