If a presidential election were held today, President Trump’s approval ratings suggest he would be in deep trouble. The good news for Trump is he doesn’t have to face voters again until 2020 (though the fate of his Republican allies in 2018 is a different question). But what if he didn’t have to face the voters then, either?
In The Washington Post on Thursday, two professors revealed the results of a poll that asked some Republican voters that question. Using a scientific online survey, the authors asked GOP supporters whether they’d be willing to postpone voting in the 2020 election if President Trump said it was necessary to make sure only eligible voters participated. More than half—52 percent—said they would, and that number bumped up to 56 percent in a scenario in which congressional Republicans agreed with the president.
A presidential election has never been delayed, and “temporary” delays for pretextual reasons in other countries have often been a prelude to leaders attempting to bypass democratic control. Cue the horrified reaction: Republicans hate democracy! Trump is a totalitarian! But take a deep breath—the poll shows something horrifying about American democracy, but it’s probably not that.
First, there are some good reasons to be dubious about the results. The authors include a doozy of a to-be-sure paragraph, noting that their situation is a hypothetical, and if it were actually attempted it would produce strong backlash, including from Republicans, crash markets, and probably fail to pass constitutional muster.
But that’s just a start. The researchers note that before asking respondents whether they would support delaying the election, they asked several other questions:
Respondents were asked whether Trump won the popular vote, whether millions of illegal immigrants voted, and how often voter fraud occurs. These questions evoke arguments frequently made by Trump and others about the integrity of the 2016 election.
In other words, the respondents were primed to be thinking about Trump’s (spurious) claims of widespread voter fraud, already shading their impressions before they got to the central question. Pollsters and political scientists long ago showed that the sequence and tone of questions can help determine the way people will answer the question. That’s especially true with the idea of delaying the election, which few voters will have considered since it’s not a topic of open debate. Poll respondents often offer what are called “doorstep opinions”: They’d rather answer a question than admit they haven’t thought about it. As the Harvard government professor Ryan Enos put it on Twitter, “Ask people about something complex they've never considered and tell them somebody they trust supports it and they will also support it.”
Besides, there are lots of dubious partisan views that show up in polls. Respondents consistently say things that are counterfactual or plainly nuts. How many voters really believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim, or born in Kenya? Probably fewer than told pollsters they did. Even the belief that Trump won the popular vote, which has shown up in other polls, could fall under the same umbrella. As Julian Sanchez has argued, such results look like “symbolic beliefs,” offered mostly to affirm fidelity to a party or politician. In the early ’90s, bumperstickers suggested, “Annoy the media: Re-elect Bush.” In today’s even more polarized, media-hating environment, the temptation to annoy the media, liberals, and Republican elites alike by backing outlandish ideas in polls is even stronger.
These weaknesses are not confined to Republican voters. The delayed-election result feeds the prejudices of progressives whose reaction to Trump is the potent cocktail of ridicule (those idiots!) and terror (those idiots are in charge!). But Democrats have sometimes expressed equally worrying views in polls. In the summer of 2016, for example, a pollster found that two-thirds of Democratic voters would trade an unconstitutional third term for Obama if it meant avoiding either Clinton or Bush. Perhaps you think, They must have been joking, and would never have followed through. But that’s just the point: What happens in polling often stays in polling. (That gives us reasons to take polls like this with a grain of salt. But as Brendan Nyhan writes, it doesn’t let people off the hook for unwise statements. Where can one draw the line between “real” and partisan beliefs?)
A better way to think about the delayed-election poll is in a broader context of eroding democratic norms. For the last few months, since shortly before the election, the Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk has been publicly warning that voter support for bedrock principles of democracy is waning, both in the U.S. and overseas. “Polls suggest the American public has never been as skeptical of democracy or as open to authoritarian alternatives like military rule as it is right now,” Mounk wrote in October.
That’s particularly true among younger people, the cohort that will gradually make up a larger and larger share of the population. Fewer of them think it’s very important to live in a democracy. About a quarter of young Americans say democracy is a “bad” way to run a government. They’re more open to a strong, authoritarian leader. There’s other evidence of this tendency in other places. A 2015 Pew Poll found that 40 percent of Millennials think censorship of offensive views would be acceptable.
That’s where Trump comes in. Even if the delayed-election poll is dubious, it is true that Trump was elected on a platform that was unusually, and in some cases pointedly, authoritarian. He has raged against the independent judiciary’s check on his power. He supported a registry of Muslims that he could not or would not differentiate from Nazi religious registries. The president shows little regard for norms of all types, encouraging an iconoclastic tendency in society. At a time in which democratic norms are in question, it might be useful to have a president who could calm and reassure the population, but instead, the president has encouraged a more authoritarian mindset.
The bedrock principles of American democracy are often more revered than actually believed. The nation has often violated these principles, and with less sober political leadership at certain points in the past, many voters might have been willing to go much further. This is a much greater danger than Trump’s shrinking base supporting a hypothetical delayed election three years from now: that a tendency toward illiberalism spread throughout society will be encouraged by a president with little interest in democratic norms.