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What Americans really think about foreign interference in U.S. elections

There’s an erosion of trust in the democratic process, our survey found.

- June 18, 2019

A June 2019 ABC News interview with President Trump unleashed fresh debate about foreign interference in U.S. elections when Trump said he might accept information about political opponents from foreign governments such as Russia or China.

When the interviewer pressed further, asking whether Trump wanted “that kind of interference in our elections,” the president replied: “It’s not interference. They have information. I think I’d take it.”

Democrats in Congress reacted swiftly, labeling the comments “appalling” and renewing calls for Trump’s impeachment. Fewer congressional Republicans spoke out, though many privately lamented Trump’s remarks. Amid the criticism, Trump appeared to walk back his comments at least partially in a subsequent interview, but the episode has brought election interference back to the forefront of the news.

What do Americans think when foreign countries get involved in U.S. elections? Here’s what our new research says.

We surveyed the U.S. public on this topic

In March and April 2018, we surveyed 2,948 U.S. adults, who resembled the general U.S. population with respect to gender, age, geographic location and race. The online survey asked all participants to read a hypothetical scenario about the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

We randomly assigned participants to four groups, which varied in the extent to which a foreign country — either China, Turkey or Pakistan — interfered in the election.

Members of the endorsement group read that the foreign country verbally endorsed one of the candidates. The threat group learned that the country not only endorsed a candidate, but also threatened consequences if that candidate lost.

The action group, meanwhile, read that the foreign country attempted to boost its preferred candidate by contributing money, spreading true information, spreading false information or hacking into voting machines. In all of these scenarios, we randomized whether the foreign country supported the Democratic or the Republican candidate, who then went on to win the election.

In contrast, the fourth group of respondents received a control condition. This stay out group read that the foreign country did not interfere, and we randomized whether the Democrat or the Republican prevailed in the election.

We then measured whether participants disapproved of how the foreign country behaved and whether they would trust the results of the election and have faith in U.S. democracy. To estimate the effects of intervention, we compared responses in the three intervention groups to those in the stay out condition.

Voters disapproved of foreign interference — but their reactions were polarized

We found that foreign involvement provoked public disapproval, which increased with the level of intervention. When the foreign country stayed out, only 5 percent of respondents disapproved of how the foreign country behaved. Disapproval was 35 percentage points higher when the foreign country endorsed a candidate, and 52 points higher when the foreign country coupled its endorsement with a threat.

Disapproval spiked even higher among those in the action group, who learned that the foreign country either spread damaging but true information (up 75 points), spread lies (81 points), gave money (86 points) or hacked into voting machines (85 points).

Reactions varied strongly by party, however. For example, disapproval among Democrats surged 53 points when a foreign country endorsed a Republican candidate — but just 26 points when the foreign county endorsed a Democrat. Democrats also objected much more strongly to threats in support of Republican candidates (a 71-point spike in disapproval) than to threats intended to help Democratic contenders (38 points).

Republicans reacted along similar lines, disapproving far more strongly when the foreign country used endorsements or threats to help a Democrat than when it took identical steps in favor of the Republican. Such partisan double standards persisted even when the foreign country actively manipulated information, campaign funding or voting machines.

Foreign interference depressed faith in democracy

We also studied whether foreign electoral intervention undermined confidence in democratic institutions. The results were somewhat distressing. In our experiments, voters who learned of foreign intervention were much more likely to distrust the results of the election and lose faith in U.S. democracy more broadly.

Once again, though, reactions varied strongly by party. Among Democrats, trust in the election and faith in democracy fell by 22 to 45 points when the foreign country issued endorsements or threats to boost the Republican, but it barely budged when the foreign country took equivalent steps to aid the Democrat. Republicans in our survey reacted similarly.

The action condition was even more effective at undermining faith in democracy, but even here, we found evidence of a partisan double standard. Thus, news of foreign involvement not only provokes public disapproval, but also injures confidence in American democracy and splits the public along party lines.

The future of U.S. elections

What do our results mean for the future? On the one hand, our results clearly suggest that the U.S. public disapproves of most forms of foreign involvement in U.S. elections. This could be good news for politicians seeking to build support for legislation to tighten election security and punish candidates who accept foreign help.

On the other hand, our experiments showed that foreign interference leads to partisan splits. Both Democrats and Republicans exhibited partisan bias in the extent to which they disapproved of foreign activity and the extent to which interference raised concerns about America’s democracy. These biases could complicate efforts to forge a bipartisan consensus about foreign involvement in U.S. elections.

If, as U.S. security experts fear, foreign countries interfere in future U.S. elections, the result is likely to be a public disillusioned by foreign interference but divided about what to do about it.

Michael Tomz is professor of political science at Stanford University.

Jessica L.P. Weeks (@jessicalpweeks) is associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin Madison.