Trump Trusted More than Biden on Democracy among Key Swing-state Voters

Matt McClain/The Washington Post
Members of the Brooklyn College Veteran Students’ Organization carry a large American flag in the National Memorial Day Parade on May 27 in D.C.

President Biden and his Democratic allies have cast his reelection campaign as a battle for the country’s survival, warning that a second Donald Trump presidency would present an existential threat to American democracy.

In speeches and campaign ads, Biden points to Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, his incitement of an angry mob that ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and the former president’s boasts that he will use the powers of his office to punish his political enemies.

But that message may not be resonating with the voters Biden needs in order to win another term in the White House.

In six swing states that Biden narrowly won in 2020, a little more than half of voters classified as likely to decide the presidential election say threats to democracy are extremely important to their vote for president, according to a poll by The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Yet, more of them trust Trump to handle those threats than Biden. And most believe that the guardrails in place to protect democracy would hold even if a dictator tried to take over the country.

The results offer troubling indicators for Biden, who needs voters who may be unenthusiastic about his candidacy to decide they must reject Trump to preserve America’s system of representative government.

“Many Americans don’t recognize Biden’s custodianship of our democracy, which is a bad sign for his campaign,” said Justin Gest, a professor of policy and government at George Mason University.

The poll surveyed the views of 3,513 registered voters in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in April and May. Of those surveyed, 2,255 were classified as “Deciders” – those who fit into one or more categories: They voted in only one of the past two presidential elections; are between ages 18 and 25; registered to vote since 2022; did not definitely plan to vote for either Biden or Trump this year; or switched their support between 2016 and 2020.

For many voters, democracy is an abstract idea, less tangible than issues like the economy, abortion or immigration. Still, most voters, regardless of party, report that the issue matters to them. Gest noted that “the vast majority don’t want to tip toward more authoritarian control,” with systems of representative or direct democracy polling far more favorably.

Among key-state voters who identify themselves as locked-in Biden supporters, 78 percent see threats to democracy as extremely important. Among Trump backers, that’s true of 71 percent. Threats to democracy are second only to the economy in the percentage of swing state voters overall who describe the issue as extremely important.

But definitions of what constitutes a threat to democracy vary depending on which candidate voters are supporting. On the campaign trail, Biden and Trump have described threats to democracy in sharply different terms.

Trump has tried to flip the democracy issue, claiming falsely that he and his allies are facing multiple criminal investigations because Biden is weaponizing the judicial system against him. The former president also continues to undermine the legitimacy of elections with baseless claims of widespread fraud.

Biden, meanwhile, has pointed to Trump’s own vow that he will direct the justice system to prosecute his enemies in a campaign of “retribution.” The president has also highlighted Trump’s boast that he will be “a dictator” on his first day in office and the former president’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election. While 64 percent of key-state voters and 69 percent of Deciders say Biden’s 2020 election win was “legitimate,” that falls to 19 percent of locked-in Trump voters.

Among the Deciders, more than 7 in 10 believe that Trump will not accept the results of the election if he loses, compared with one-third who say the same for Biden. Nearly half, 47 percent, say Trump would try to rule as a dictator if he is elected to another term as president, compared with 15 percent who say Biden would. The poll finds that just over half of Deciders think Trump is guilty of criminal charges of lying about voter fraud in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election, and more say he has been treated fairly rather than unfairly by the criminal justice system.

Yet more of them, 38 percent, trust Trump to handle threats to democracy, than the 29 percent who trust Biden on the issue. Twenty-three percent don’t trust either major party candidate.

That latter category includes Matthew Titterington, 32, who lives in Milan, Mich., and works two part-time jobs, one in a bakery and another as a pharmacy tech. He said he is leaning toward voting for a third-party candidate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., because he dislikes both major-party choices.

The biggest threats to democracy, Titterington said, are foreign governments that stoke internal divisions among Americans, and internal division that “prevents us from being able to function.” He doesn’t think either Biden or Trump is equipped to handle those threats.

“I don’t know that I could pick one between the two – maybe Trump a little bit more external-threat-wise and Biden a little bit more internal-threat-wise, but I don’t even know if that is true,” Titterington said.

Locked-in Trump voters (76 percent) are more likely to be dissatisfied with how democracy is working in America than are Biden voters (37 percent). Voters are also divided on whether U.S. elections are fair, with 94 percent of Biden voters saying they trust them at least “a good amount” and 78 percent of Trump voters not trusting elections much or at all. Deciders are split with 52 percent trusting that elections are fair.

David Dunacusky, a 61-year-old from Phoenixville, Pa., who serves as a constable, an elected law enforcement officer, is among those who believe that the threat to democracy is coming from the left. A staunch Trump supporter, he echoed Trump’s unfounded claims that voter fraud swung the 2020 presidential election to Biden and suggested that FBI agents were embedded with Jan. 6 rioters. He also expressed concern that the election won’t be legitimate this year.

He said it’s “propaganda 100 percent” when Democrats say Trump is a threat to democracy because “they’re scared to death” of their corruption being exposed.

Asked which types of government they approve of, about 7 in 10 key-state voters support direct democracy, in which citizens, not elected officials, vote directly on issues to become law. Nearly 8 in 10 back representative democracy, in which people elected by citizens decide what is law.

About two-thirds of key state voters say that a political system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from Congress or the courts – in a word, a dictatorship – would be bad. That includes majorities of locked-in Biden and Trump voters. Nearly 6 in 10 Biden voters say this would be a “very bad” system of government, though that drops to about 4 in 10 among Trump voters.

Derinn Wallace, a 30-year-old from Scottsdale, Ariz., said she is voting for Biden despite her disappointments with some of his policies because she fears that Trump would destroy democracy.

“He is an authoritarian guy – he’ll do anything to stay in power once he gets power. So if he gets power again, I shudder to think what he will do,” Wallace said.

But many voters see less at stake. Alex Mayer, 25, a manufacturing processing engineer who lives in Grand Blanc, Mich., and says he is likely to support Trump, is among those who believe democracy will stand no matter who is president.

“I find it very hard to believe that democracy is going to go away. I don’t think about it very much. I look at it as a foundation that will never change,” Mayer said.

That’s a problem for Biden if voters are “taking that system of checks and balances for granted,” said Gest, the George Mason scholar.

Voters “feel reassured that Congress and the court system will protect America from former president Trump’s worst excesses,” he said. “I think that it’s going to be President Biden’s job over the next four months to communicate that democracy is something we cannot take for granted.”