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The price of hyper-partisanship: Confidence in elections undermined

Cynicism of partisan voters has lessened but serious problems remain

Voting signs for New York’s 3rd District special election are pictured outside City Hall in Glen Cove, N.Y., on Feb. 4.
Voting signs for New York’s 3rd District special election are pictured outside City Hall in Glen Cove, N.Y., on Feb. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The hyper-partisanship that has infected our politics, biased the media (especially social media) and eroded the confidence of the electorate is the very antithesis of democracy. It has become a toxic threat to our individual rights, the rule of law and freedom itself. It is eating away at people’s trust in the integrity of our elections, the honesty of our political leaders and even in the worth of their own votes.

The firing of former Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel by NBC reflects yet another escalation in the war on democracy and, in her case, free speech. McDaniel had indeed denied the outcome of an election. But so did Hillary Clinton and Stacey Abrams, Nancy Pelosi and a raft of Democratic members of Congress in recent years.

Republicans aren’t blameless either. Donald Trump has done much the same since his defeat in 2020, along with many of his Republican supporters in Congress and across the country.

Questioning the outcome of an election isn’t illegal or even inappropriate up to a point. Politicians have stretched the truth since time immemorial. But when lying to the electorate for political gain begins to threaten the stability of our democratic system and the future of the republic, both sides need to step back from what may be a tipping point of no return.

As the current president likes to say, “That’s not hyperbole.” The fact that a significant part of the electorate, Republican and Democrat, no longer accepts election results — or, perhaps better said, cannot accept election defeats — puts our democracy at risk.

Three years ago, a “Winning the Issues” survey conducted Feb. 9-12, 2021, one month after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, looked at how the two parties that lost the presidential race in each of the two previous elections viewed the final results. The survey asked voters whether President Joe Biden had won the 2020 election fairly or because of voter fraud. In that same survey we asked whether Trump had won the 2016 election fairly or because of Russian interference.

Overall, 57 percent of people believed Biden had won fairly while 51 percent thought Trump was elected fairly, numbers that don’t reflect the kind of confidence in our democratic system that bodes well for future elections.

But the survey also revealed that partisan voters’ trust in the election outcomes was lacking. By overwhelming margins, Republican and Democratic voters whose party lost in one of the two elections believed the winning candidate did so by nefarious means. Sixty-two percent of Democrats thought Trump had won thanks to Russian interference, while 61 percent of Republicans thought Biden had won because of voter fraud. Only independents had majorities say Biden won fairly (55 percent) and Trump won fairly (52 percent).

Two Washington Post-University of Maryland surveys got similar results. In the first, conducted after the 2016 election (Sept. 27 – Oct. 5, 2017), more than two-thirds of Democrats, 67 percent, said Trump was not legitimately elected. In the second poll, conducted in mid-December 2021, 58 percent of Republicans believed that Biden had not been legitimately elected.

Perhaps the most troubling number in the “Winning the Issues” survey was that only 19 percent of the electorate believed that both Biden and Trump had won fairly.

When only 1 out of 5 voters believes the two prior presidential elections were fairly resolved, it’s a reflection of the terrible state of democracy and political discourse at that time.

But that was then. This is now.

“Winning the Issues” went back into the field this past February to find out whether the hyper-partisan view of the results of the 2016 and 2020 elections was still in play going into the November election. Once again, we asked the same questions about the fairness of the two elections.

Three years later, overall 59 percent of voters believed Biden won the 2020 election fairly, a slight hike from 57 percent; and 56 percent believed Trump won the 2016 election fairly, up from 51 percent. The new survey also showed that 25 percent of the electorate believed Trump won by Russian interference, down from 33 percent in 2021, while in 2024, 27 percent thought Biden had won as a result of voter fraud, down from 34 percent in 2021.

The cynicism of partisan voters has lessened, but serious problems stemming from hyper-partisanship still remain. Looking at the Democratic and Republican breaks on these questions, we found that 51 percent of Republicans now believe Biden won because of election fraud, down from 61 percent three years ago.

For Democrats, 49 percent still believe Trump won because of Russian interference, down from 62 percent. So there were double-digit drops in both parties, but nonetheless about half in both parties still think something unscrupulous occurred.

Today, 24 percent of the electorate believes both Biden and Trump won fairly. This is an improvement — but still falls well short of what is needed for a robust and stable democracy.

As the debate about which side is a “threat” to democracy continues on the campaign trail and in the media, several key questions need answering that will have far more impact on the future of American democracy.

How can we convince losing candidates to learn from their defeats? To ask themselves why they were unable to put together a majority coalition, why what they were proposing did not translate into enough votes? But in this age of hyper-polarization, the response to an election loss usually revolves around a technical issue like early voting and ballot harvesting or election fraud to explain the failure — it certainly couldn’t be issue-based.

Successful candidates, too, ought to at least question whether winning the election is a de facto mandate for their base’s policy agenda that has to be implemented at warp speed. That hasn’t worked well for four of the last five presidents, who lost the House of Representatives in the next election. The exception to this was Republican George W. Bush in 2002 as the nation was still in recovery from 9/11.

What the media and political leaders need to consider when they spin partisan tales is that maybe, just maybe, the price of hyper-partisanship, and the caustic political rhetoric that goes with it, is too high if we expect an involved electorate confident that their vote matters.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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