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One-third of Americans report no confidence that the election will be conducted fairly and accurately
WASHINGTON—Two weeks before the presidential election, a new national survey of 2,538 Americans released today by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that supporters of each presidential candidate see different realities in the current crises in the country, including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and widespread protests over racial justice.
PRRI’s wide-ranging 11th annual American Values Survey also focuses on the public’s views of the presidential candidates; their attitudes toward pressing issues such as health care, racial inequality and discrimination, immigration, abortion, LGBTQ rights, and climate change; and their confidence in the fairness and reliability of the elections themselves.
“As we head into the 2020 election during an unprecedented year of multiple crises, including a pandemic that has killed over 215,000 Americans and widespread protests for racial justice, Republicans and Democrats seem to be living in different countries,” noted PRRI CEO and founder Robert P. Jones. “Republicans see terrorism and crime as the most pressing issues, while Democrats are more concerned about the coronavirus pandemic, health care, and racial inequality.”
Critical Issues in the Country
Out of 14 issues included in the survey, only four issues found majorities of Americans agreeing they were critical: the coronavirus pandemic (60%), fairness of presidential elections (57%), health care (56%), and jobs and the economy (52%). But the only issue that majorities of Democrats and Republicans agree is critical is the fairness of presidential elections (68% and 55%, respectively); even here, partisans likely have divergent views of what “fairness” means.
Among Republicans, majorities say only two other issues are critical, and both are connected to violent threats: terrorism (57%, down from 83% in 2016) and crime (58%, unchanged from 2016). Strikingly, only 39% of Republicans say the coronavirus pandemic is a critical issue. Democrats’ other top issues are the pandemic (85%) and health care (73%). Nearly seven in ten Democrats also rank foreign interference in American elections (69%) and racial inequality (68%) as critical issues. In contrast to Republicans, majorities of Democrats rated eight out of 14 issues as critical.
The Coronavirus Through Partisan Lenses
Just over one-third of Americans (35%)—including nearly eight in ten Republicans (78%), but only seven percent of Democrats—approve of how Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic, while 65% disapprove.
Nearly seven in ten Americans (69%) think the spread of COVID-19 in the United States could have been controlled better, compared to 30% who say an outbreak of this size was inevitable. Republicans (40%), and particularly Republicans who most trust Fox News (22%), are notably less likely than independents (70%) and Democrats (92%) to think the spread of COVID-19 could have been controlled better.
Majorities of Republicans (71%) believe that the coronavirus was developed intentionally by scientists in a lab, compared to 43% of independents and 34% of Democrats. Republicans who most trust Fox News are significantly more likely than Republicans who most trust other television news sources to believe the coronavirus was developed in a lab (81% vs. 64%).
President Donald Trump is by far the least trusted source for accurate information and advice regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Only 14% of Americans, including only 39% of Republicans, say they have a lot of trust that Trump provides accurate information and advice regarding the pandemic. By contrast, 28% of Americans, including nearly six in ten Democrats (58%), trust Joe Biden a lot to provide accurate information and advice. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats (73%), compared to 49% of Americans and only 31% of Republicans, say they have a lot of trust in Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Notably, Trump gets particularly low marks among seniors for his handling of the pandemic. Only 38% of seniors (ages 65 and older) approve of how Trump has handled the pandemic, and more than two-thirds (68%) say it could have been controlled better. Seniors are more than twice as likely to say they trust Biden (42%) rather than Trump (18%) to give them accurate information and advice about the coronavirus pandemic.
The Electoral Process and the Candidates
Only 18% of Americans are very confident that the election will be conducted fairly and accurately. Almost half (49%) are somewhat confident, and one-third (33%) of Americans report no confidence at all that the election will be conducted fairly and accurately.
Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to say they are not confident at all that voting by mail will be as secure as voting in person (56% vs. 25%, respectively). These attitudes are reflected in the way that partisans say they will cast their votes. Two-thirds of Republicans say they will vote in person, either on (48%) or before (20%) Election Day. By contrast, only about four in ten Democrats say they will vote in person, either on (25%) or before (16%) Election Day.
Notably, more than three in four American adults say they either already voted (15%) or are absolutely certain they will vote (62%) in November’s election, the highest proportion PRRI has recorded at similar times in the last three presidential election cycles (66% absolutely certain to vote in 2016; 71% in 2012).
PRRI developed two likely voter models to measure potential support for each candidate under two turnout scenarios. If voter turnout looks similar to 2016 (55% turnout), the survey finds Biden besting Trump by 14 percentage points (54% to 40%). If voter turnout is higher (70% turnout), as multiple indicators suggest is likely, Biden leads Trump by 18 percentage points (56% to 38%).
The underlying dynamics of Trump’s support has shifted significantly since 2016. About seven in ten Trump supporters (71%) say their vote is more for Trump than against Biden, while 28% say their vote is more against Biden than for Trump. In 2016, Trump supporters were much less likely to say their vote was more for Trump (40%) than against Hillary Clinton (59%). On the other side, Biden supporters are more divided, with a slim majority saying their vote is more for Biden than against Trump (51%), while 48% say their vote is more against Trump than for Biden. In 2016, 46% of Clinton supporters indicated their choice was more for Clinton than against Trump, compared to 54% who said their vote was more against Trump.
Biden’s decision to select a Black woman as his running mate resonates particularly with white college-educated women. More than six in ten white women with a four-year college degree (61%) say this was a good decision, compared to only 33% of white women without a college degree.
Racial Inequality and Injustice
Just over one-third of Americans (35%) approve of President Trump’s response to the protests over racial justice, compared to 64% who disapprove. Nearly six in ten Americans (57%) say Trump’s decisions and behavior as president have encouraged white supremacist groups. Notably, nearly seven in ten white women with a four-year college degree (68%) and 59% of white men with a four-year college degree think Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups, whereas only about four in ten white men (41%) and women (43%) without a four-year degree agree.
This survey contained an embedded experiment to evaluate how the racial identity of protesters influenced Americans’ perceptions of the protests themselves. More than six in ten Americans (61%) agree with the statement, “When Americans speak up and protest unfair treatment by the government, it always makes our country better.” However, when the statement specifies “Black Americans” as the actors, support drops nine percentage points, to 52%.
When the protesters are identified as “Black Americans,” support for protests drops 14 percentage points among all white Americans (from 61% to 47%), 25 points among Republicans (from 49% to 24%), 37 points among Republicans who most trust Fox News (from 47% to 10%), and 20 points among white evangelical Protestants (from 55% to 35%).
Notably, the drop in support when protesters are identified as Black is similar among both whites with a four-year college degree (from 70% to 58%) and those who do not have a four-year college degree (from 54% to 39%). Democrats are equally likely to agree with both statements (71% agree with both versions of the statements).
Cracks in Trump’s White Christian Wall of Support?
Historically, Republican presidential candidates, including President Trump, have enjoyed strong support from white Christians. The survey points to emerging daylight between the views of white evangelicals on the one hand and white mainline Protestants and white Catholics on the other. Three in four white evangelical Protestants (76%) approve of the job President Trump is doing, compared to 52% of white mainline Protestants and 49% of white Catholics.
White evangelical Protestants (44%) are the only religious group in which less than a majority say the spread of COVID-19 could have been controlled better. Majorities of white mainline Protestants (57%) and white Catholics (65%) believe more could be done to halt the spread of the disease.
White evangelical Protestants (70%) are most likely of all religious groups to say that police killings of unarmed African Americans are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans. Their views are unchanged over the last five years (71% in 2018 and 72% in 2015). Majorities of white mainline Protestants (57%) and white Catholics (58%) also agree that the killing of African Americans by police are isolated incidents, but their views have significantly shifted since 2015 (73% and 71%, respectively), when their attitudes were aligned with those of white evangelical Protestants.
Among the Findings
- About three in four Americans (76%) think that shutdowns, mask mandates, and other steps taken by state and local governments since the coronavirus pandemic began are reasonable measures to protect people, including majorities of Republicans, independents, and Democrats (56%, 71%, and 94%, respectively).
- Nine in ten Democrats (90%), 78% of independents, and 65% of Republicans say they always wear masks in public places. White evangelical Protestants stand out among religious groups as less likely than others to report wearing a mask all the time in public (63% vs. 77% and higher among all other groups).
- White evangelical Protestants are the only religious group who are more likely to say that Trump rather than Biden has strong religious beliefs (43% vs. 18%) and best models religious values with his actions and leadership (49% vs. 18%).
- A majority of Americans (55%), including 24% of Republicans and 77% of Democrats, say they are not at all confident that President Trump will concede defeat if Biden is declared the winner of the election. One-third of Americans (36%), including 26% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats, are not at all confident that Republican leaders in Congress would demand Trump leave office if he refuses to concede an election loss.
- Two-thirds of Americans (66%) say the winner of the popular vote rather than the Electoral College should determine the next president.
- Partisan views of the other party are harsh.
- Eight in ten Republicans (81%) say the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, compared to 17% who say the Democratic Party is trying to make capitalism work for average Americans.
- Eight in ten Democrats (78%) say the Republican Party has been taken over by racists, compared to 20% who say the Republican Party is trying to protect the country against outside threats.
- Democrats (17%) are significantly less likely than they were in both 2018 (26%) and 2015 (32%) to believe that police killings of Black men are isolated incidents, as white Democrats’ views have become more aligned with those of African Americans over the last five years. By contrast, Republican views that police killings of African Americans are isolated incidents (79%) have not changed significantly since 2015 (82%).
- Majorities of all religious groups, including 58% of white evangelical Protestants, say immigrants living in the U.S. illegally should be allowed a way to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements.
- Majorities of Democrats (91%), independents (79%), and Republicans (53%) oppose an immigration border policy that separates children from their parents and charges parents as criminals when they enter the country without permission.
- One in five Americans (20%), including only 32% of Republicans and 36% of white evangelical Protestants, say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion.
- Democrats (76%) and independents (61%) are about twice as likely as Republicans (31%) to think that climate change will cause them harm.
- Majorities of all partisan groups disagree (55% of Republicans, 75% of independents, and 81% of Democrats) that the U.S. sets a good moral example for the world. Since 2018, Republican agreement with this statement has dropped more than twenty percentage points (from 67% in 2018 to 45% today). There are no religious groups in which a majority agree that the U.S. sets a good moral example for the world.
- Majorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans favor guaranteeing all Americans access to affordable childcare (95%, 85%, and 71%, respectively) and guaranteeing all Americans a minimum income (88%, 69%, and 52%, respectively).
A full copy of the 2020 American Values Survey report can be accessed at PRRI.org.
The survey was designed and conducted by PRRI. The survey was made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, with additional support from the Ford Foundation, the Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation, and the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 2,538 adults (ages 18 and older) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Interviews were conducted both online using a self-administered design and by telephone using live interviewers. All interviews were conducted among participants in AmeriSpeak, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the national U.S. adult population, run by NORC at the University of Chicago. Interviewing was conducted in both Spanish and English between Sept. 9 and Sept. 22, 2020. The margin of error, including the design effect, for the survey is +/- 2.6 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.
A supplemental survey of 1,070 adults using the same methodology was conducted Oct. 9–12, 2020, to assess likely turnout, presidential candidate choice, and motivation for voting (for/against the candidate). The margin of error, including the design effect, for that survey is +/- 4.0 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.
PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.