Study reveals “lying for Trump” trend among mail-in voters in Florida

Many conservatives express disapproval of voting by mail. But do their expressed opinions align with their actual behavior? A study published in Public Opinion Quarterly showed that supporters of former President Donald Trump, especially those who closely follow political news, were more likely to misreport their past and intended use of mail-in voting. Conducted among Florida voters, the study highlighted the impact of political cues on voter behavior, revealing a discrepancy between what voters say and what they actually do.

The study was motivated by the intense debate and politicization surrounding mail-in voting during the 2020 Presidential Election. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of mail-in ballots surged. However, this surge came with heightened political scrutiny, particularly from President Trump, who repeatedly criticized mail-in voting, claiming it led to voter fraud and was harmful to the Republican Party. Researchers sought to understand how these political cues affected voters, particularly Trump supporters, in their reporting of voting methods.

The study was conducted using a web survey of registered voters in Florida. Out of over 14.7 million registered voters in the state, a sample of 149,986 was drawn based on the availability of an email address in the state’s voter file. The survey, executed through Qualtrics, was active from July 21, 2020, to August 1, 2020, and gathered 11,263 completed responses, achieving a 7.52 percent response rate.

The survey included questions about past and future vote methods, political awareness, ideology, concerns over COVID-19, and various demographics. To validate the responses, the researchers linked the survey data with official voting records to check whether respondents’ reported voting methods matched their actual behavior in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections.

The researchers discovered that Trump supporters who were more politically aware were likelier to falsely claim they had not used mail-in voting in the past. This misreporting was attributed to what is known as ‘expressive responding’ – a phenomenon where individuals respond to surveys in a way that aligns with their political beliefs or the cues from political elites, rather than their actual behavior.

“We find that the president’s rhetoric against the ‘fraudulent process’ of voting by mail may have led to further erosion of trust in mail-in voting, as his supporters — who we know usually vote by mail — were less likely to be forthright about this standard method of voting. In short, they were lying for Trump,” the researchers explained.

This tendency was particularly pronounced among Trump supporters who were highly attentive to political news. They misrepresented their usage of mail-in voting by about 12 percentage points compared to those with less exposure to political news.

Furthermore, the study looked at prospective misreporting – how voters reported they would vote in the future. Here too, a similar pattern emerged. Trump supporters, especially those who followed political news closely, were more likely to say they would vote in person in the November 2020 election, yet ended up voting by mail. The probability of a Trump supporter with high political news interest misreporting their voting intention was nearly double that of a supporter with low news interest.

“We find that Trump’s attack on mail-in voting did not stop his supporters who habitually vote by mail from casting a mail-in ballot in the November 2020 election,” the researchers said.

Interestingly, these patterns of misreporting were not found among habitual in-person voters, regardless of their political leaning. This suggests that the impact of political cues from elite figures like Trump had a specific influence on those accustomed to mail-in voting.

While the study offers significant insights into the relationship between political cues and voter behavior, it does have limitations. The focus on Florida voters means the findings might not be universally applicable to all states or demographics in the United States. Additionally, the study captures a snapshot in time, specifically the period around the 2020 election, which was marked by unique circumstances like the pandemic and intense political polarization. Future research could expand to other states and electoral contexts to see if the observed patterns hold true in different environments.

“To be sure, it is probably too soon to determine whether the patterns we have uncovered are unique to Trump or restricted to Republicans; we will need more tests in more elections to make such inferences,” the researchers acknowledged.

The study, “Lying for Trump? Elite Cue-Taking and Expressive Responding on Vote Method“, was authored by Enrijeta Shino, Daniel A. Smith, and Laura Uribe.

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