Democracy is a top concern for many voters. We asked them why.

While it’s practically a given that economic issues rank as the most important to voters, and policy issues like immigration and public safety have surged in salience over the past year, there’s another issue close on their heels — one that may be harder to define: American voters are worried and depressed about the state of their democracy.

Voters were evenly split when asked in a January YouGov/CBS News poll whether having a strong economy or having a functioning democracy was a bigger concern in the coming years, and research from Ipsos suggests that concerns about threats to democracy might even be greater than many traditional issue polls capture. Overall, polls have consistently shown that both Democrats and Republicans think democracy is at risk in the coming election, but largely for different reasons.

Partnering with 538, nonpartisan research firm PerryUndem recently conducted a set of focus groups with swing-state voters who identified as undecided ahead of the 2024 presidential election — one group leaning toward voting for President Joe Biden and one leaning toward former President Donald Trump — to delve deeper into what voters think about the state of our democracy. As we did with our focus group questions about “the economy,” we asked these voters what they meant when they expressed concerns about “democracy,” and how those concerns impacted their decision-making on whom to support in the upcoming election.

These focus groups found that the economy was indeed top of mind for undecided voters, and that those leaning toward Trump thought the economy was a point of strength for him … but Biden leaners tended to agree. Democracy turned out to be key in answering why those voters were inclined to vote for Biden nonetheless, as their differing opinions on what factors posed the biggest threat to democracy drove each group toward opposite candidates.

Voters feel unrepresented, with little recourse

Across the board, voters were deeply frustrated over the state of democracy, suggesting that the country was off on the wrong track and expressing pessimism about whether it could improve. They were also dissatisfied with the candidates they had to choose from. Democracy “won’t get better in our lifetime,” one voter said. Several participants from both groups expressed the idea that the government was not representing the will of the people or the needs of “middle-class taxpayers.”

Many also said that Democrats and Republicans needed to work together more and were concerned about what they saw as deep partisan divides both in Washington and across the country. And perhaps unsurprisingly for a group of voters who hadn’t fully committed to either candidate, they all wished they had more choices in whom to vote for and believed democracy would be better served if there were more than two major parties.

“I’m undecided because I don’t want any of them,” a voter from North Carolina who was leaning toward Biden said. “But a vote for a third party is just going to … take away from A or B’s votes.”

A Trump leaner from the same state agreed with her. “The fact that we are limited to these two parties, and the people who are running from those two parties … everybody here is trying to figure out who is the lesser of the two evils,” she said. “I think if we were truly democratic we would not be limited. We would be able to vote for whoever we thought would do the best job and not be worried about throwing our votes away.”

But despite — or perhaps in a good illustration of — their shared frustrations with the two-party system, the two groups still split strongly on partisan lines when it came to what, or who, was at fault. In fact, it seemed like concerns about democracy were a determining factor in which candidate some voters were leaning toward.

Overall, these voters put voice to what polls on the topic have found: Democratic leaners are worried about a repeat of Jan. 6, and that electing Trump for a second time could mean the end of democracy as we know it — some to the point that this is a deciding factor in their potential support for Biden. By contrast, Republican leaners are more worried about the chances of election fraud, and many seem convinced by Trump’s repeated false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

Biden leaners have deep fears about a second Trump presidency

“I, for one, truly believe that if Donald Trump were to win this election, democracy as we know it is dead,” one voter from Michigan said. “Because he’s got nothing to lose after that.”

In a follow-up interview, the voter clarified that he saw the actions Trump took leading up to Jan. 6 as a coordinated effort to undermine the results of a free and fair election. He also pointed to Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail about jailing political enemies as a sign of Trump’s increasing lean toward authoritarianism. “We have a demagogue here,” he added. “I’m very, very frightened that democracy is very seriously at risk.”

This was a concise explanation of a feeling that many voters in the Biden-leaning group expressed, fueled by deep-seated fears that the things they disliked about Trump during and after his first presidency would be worse if he took office for a second time. In general, those fears were a big motivator for why this group wanted to vote against the former president — including because they believed he was a corrupt “con artist,” they were worried about the criminal trials he faces, and they felt that his nationalistic, racist rhetoric made the country unsafe for many.

One Black voter in Nevada said he had liked some of Trump’s outsider messaging in 2016, when he promised to shake up the economic and political system, but became wary of him. “If he is empowering folks to take me out, the economy won’t do a damn thing for me,” he said. Another Biden leaner from North Carolina said that human rights issues would probably be her deciding factor when she finally decided how to vote. “I want my neighbors and myself to be treated well, regardless of race or sexual orientation, or whatever it might be, ” she said.

They were also extremely worried about how the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol may have created a precedent of questioning election results, and about a repeat of the insurrection if the results this November aren’t what Trump and his supporters want to see.

“When I saw that, honestly, I cried,” Claudia, a voter from Virginia, said when she remembered the storming of the Capitol. Voting, elections, and the electoral college have always worked the same way, she said. “Why is it being questioned now? Because it was not in [Trump’s] favor,” she remembered thinking at the time.

Another potential Biden voter from North Carolina said he’d already heard Trump’s campaign say that this election was “going to draw blood” — likely referring to Trump’s comments predicting “a bloodbath for the whole country” if he loses in the fall — while the other voter from his state responded, “How can that be good for our country? People acting like barbarians instead of grownups?” The Michigan voter brought up the plot to kidnap and assassinate his state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, as a similarly concerning event, saying “craziness has been normalized” after Trump’s presidency.

These voters also had more long-standing, structural concerns that tended to align them with Democrats more broadly. Two Biden leaners agreed that the electoral college system didn’t reflect the will of the majority of Americans and thought that a different system would allow more people’s votes to count. The Nevada voter pointed to gerrymandering and state laws that have, historically and recently, made it harder for some to vote. “This country has always been on some bullshit when it comes to voting,” he said.

Trump leaners are worried about election fraud

While some voters leaning toward Trump expressed concerns about the former president’s temperament or integrity, they didn’t necessarily see him as a threat to democracy. When asked why they were concerned about the state of democracy in the country, some expressed a feeling of “chaos” fueled by wars abroad and political divisions at home — but they didn’t blame Trump for these issues. Many were concerned about general corruption and lack of accountability in government, like one who said partisanship led to the spread of misinformation. “Because each party is so invested in their party’s side, you can’t even speak the obvious truth about something,” he said. And when asked specifically about elections, their answers seemed to reflect Trump and Republicans’ messaging around election integrity and voter fraud.

A Trump-leaning voter from North Carolina said that she heard there are “all these people who are running past our border, and then we’re turning around and giving them money … and letting them vote in elections.” Another from Wisconsin added that she had “no confidence in the way [election officials] run their elections,” specifying, “When you have dead people supposedly voting, I think there’s a problem.” And a voter from Arizona said he didn’t like the pushback against voter ID laws and didn’t believe that they were racist, as some opponents say they are. “Why would you [oppose the laws] unless you want someone to be able to vote that isn’t … a United States citizen?” he asked.

It’s important to note that almost every systemic analysis has found that voter fraud is exceedingly rare and is punished when it does happen. Even some Trump allies have disputed his claims about the 2020 election, and exhaustive reviews of that election have found that Trump’s claims are false. But these voters’ doubts in election integrity suggest that Republican rhetoric about potential voter fraud, like House Speaker Mike Johnson’s claim that “we all know intuitively” that undocumented immigrants are voting in federal elections, is powerful, even if it hasn’t been proven.

The Trump leaners also seemed to be swayed by Republicans’ messaging regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection, even if their initial reactions mirrored those of Biden leaners. One voter from Nevada said that while he believes entering the Capitol was wrong, he initially thought the insurrection was “horrific and frightening” but now sees that reaction as “quite extreme,” emphasizing that “there are things that happened that weren’t as what they first appeared.” The Arizona voter agreed with him, saying the fault for Jan. 6 lay with the people who actually entered the Capitol and that we don’t know all the facts about what happened that day, alluding to the conspiracy theory that federal agents were involved in instigating the insurrection.

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In all, Republican-leaning voters in our focus group felt that elections can’t be trusted. And voters leaning toward the Democrats worry that this same distrust will cause Republicans to deny future election results and could prompt another Jan. 6 — an event that has left them doubting the strength of American democracy as well.

What ultimately keeps these voters from being firmly in one camp or another is that they have doubts about the individual candidates each party offers and how they speak to their issues; they largely expressed a level of distrust in both Biden and Trump as politicians in a failing political system. All would prefer a theoretical candidate that a multi-party system might offer them, and the fact that they don’t have that option might be the most fundamental cause of their dissatisfaction.

However, when faced with the two options they’re almost certain to have in November, how these voters feel about threats to democracy, and which candidate they think poses a greater danger to it, may be a deciding factor. It will be no surprise if both parties continue to hammer home these issues to bolster their candidates’ chances in November.


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