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How do Americans react when warned that other countries are meddling in U.S. elections?

And who do they think it’s helping?

- August 20, 2020

Three countries are trying to influence the November elections in the United States: China, Russia and Iran, William Evanina warned earlier this month. Evanina is the director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center. Just two years ago, a U.S. Director of National Intelligence report warned that those three countries were trying to influence the U.S. congressional midterm elections.

How did Americans react to these warnings two years ago? We investigated — and found that if Americans believe such warnings are significant, it can undermine their trust in U.S. elections.

How we did our study

In October 2018, we worked with Survey Sampling International to recruit a nationally representative sample of 1,700 Americans to take an online survey. This survey was part of our ongoing research on how foreign countries shape public opinion.

In the survey, we divided our respondents into four groups. Three groups read about a real warning from U.S. government officials that foreign countries might meddle in the upcoming midterms. Officials suggested that “elements of these [meddling] campaigns can take many forms,” such as social media posts, disinformation, and propaganda. Each of the three groups who read the warning heard about one potential meddler that had been mentioned by U.S. intelligence reports: Russia, Iran, or China. The fourth group read nothing about potential meddling and did not answer the questions about meddlers.

We then asked respondents several questions to measure their beliefs.

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Americans were skeptical that meddling could successfully change the midterm results

We asked whether respondents thought the country they heard about was capable of changing the results of the midterm elections. Overall, Americans were dubious about this possibility; only 26 percent believed the foreign country to be very likely or somewhat likely to change the results.

That varied by country. One-third of those who read a warning about Russia believed it could be successful. Only 23 percent of those asked about Iran or China believed it capable of influence. The greater certainty about Russia’s meddling abilities undoubtedly reflects the publicity about its 2016 influence campaign and its continued efforts to spread disinformation.

As with many things in U.S. politics, Republicans and Democrats had different opinions about whether foreign countries could influence the election. As you can see in the figure below, Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to believe that Russia could influence the midterms. Neither Republicans nor Democrats seemed to believe either Iran or China could do so.

Which party do Americans think benefits from meddling?

When asked who would benefit from such meddling, about half of respondents believed that the Republican Party would benefit from Russian interference. They weren’t quite sure what to think about Iranian and Chinese meddling, with nearly equal numbers believing it would be the Republican or the Democratic Party.

That makes sense given how little had been reported at that point in 2018 about China and Iran’s capabilities or interests. Since then, Evanina has reported that China and Iran may oppose Trump’s reelection. But that hadn’t come out in earlier intelligence briefings to Congress, and neither country appears to have the sophisticated meddling apparatus or history that Russia does.

Once again, partisans had different ideas about whom meddling would benefit. As you can see in the figure below on the left, Republicans believed their own party would benefit from Russian meddling — but even more strongly believed Iranian and Chinese meddling would benefit Democrats.

Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of Democrats believed Russian meddling would benefit Republicans. Further, they believed Iranian and Chinese meddling would also benefit Republicans.

Meddling can harm trust if people believe it is consequential

When foreign countries try to influence elections, that could erode the target public’s faith in the Democratic process. In fact, Russia’s goal in meddling may be sowing this kind of distrust.

To investigate, we asked our respondents how much trust they would have in the upcoming midterms, and whether the midterms would reflect the will of the people.

As it turns out, reading about foreign meddling did not reduce respondents’ faith in the midterms, on average. The people who did not read about meddling and the people who did had roughly the same amount of trust in the midterms. But that’s because few respondents thought the foreign country would be able to change the results. When respondents thought the meddler would be unsuccessful, they were more likely to think the election would be credible than people who did not read a warning about the potential for foreign influence.

But respondents who believed that the meddler could change the election results were significantly less likely to trust the results of the upcoming midterms than those who didn’t read a warning at all. In other words, the more Americans believe a foreign country could influence U.S. elections, the less likely they are to trust the Democratic process.

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Implications for the 2020 election

Less than two years since our survey, U.S. officials are again warning Americans that Russia, Iran, and China will try to influence the upcoming election. Our findings suggest that Evanina’s warning and others like it will be viewed through partisan lenses, with Democrats more concerned about Russian influence, and both Democrats and Republicans fearing that China and Iran will help the other party.

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It’s possible that these warnings won’t undermine most Americans’ trust in the 2020 election. The warnings might even reassure them that the U.S. government is working to prevent meddling, thereby increasing the election’s credibility.

Of course, many other things threaten Americans’ trust in the election this fall. The pandemic means that fewer polling locations will be open and more people will fear voting in person. The Post Office has been slowing down mail delivery, leaving many to wonder whether their ballots will be counted. President Trump has been warning, falsely, that voting by mail is riddled with fraud. Americans may distrust the 2020 election results not because of meddling from abroad but difficulties at home.

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Sarah Bush (@sarahsunnbush) is an associate professor of political science at Yale University.

Lauren Prather (@laurenrprather) is an assistant professor of political science at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy.