MOSCOW — Political partisanship and party loyalty influence how much voters believe that Russian influence helped sway the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, according to new University of Idaho research.
“What we find is that party identification colors whether a person thinks that Russia’s interference campaign helped decide the election,” said Florian Justwan, a U of I political science professor who led the project. “At the most fundamental level, Republicans tend to discount the claim, and Democrats are more likely to say Russian interference was decisive.”
The study investigated how domestic audiences react to outside intervention in their country’s election. The researchers analyzed beliefs about 2016 election interference, using a nationally representative survey of 1,250 respondents in April 2020. The open access paper was published recently in the journal Political Studies.
Not all Democrats and not all Republicans are equally loyal to their social in-groups, such as political parties, Justwan said. Highly loyal Republicans were less likely to believe Russia swayed the election than less loyal Republicans, while highly loyal Democrats believed Russia’s influence helped decide the election at higher rates than Democrats who reported less loyalty.
Additionally, researchers found clear divides in how members of winning and losing parties perceived interference. Members of the winning political party are likely to forgive external election interference that they believe swayed the election while losers are likely to become more dissatisfied with the state of democracy.
“Half of the electorate in this country do not perceive the Russian interference as problematic, that the outcome of an election may have been swayed by an external force,” Justwan said. “It means that electoral integrity, one of the key tenets of representative democracy, is not a very salient concern to one big chunk of the electorate. Our findings suggest that democratic values and core democratic beliefs aren’t necessarily as anchored in all Americans as we would like them to be.”
The results affirm previous research findings that voters are likely to engage most with facts or beliefs that align with their pre-existing beliefs, a concept that political psychologists call “motivated bias.”
Republican voters were more likely to be satisfied with democracy after the 2016 presidential election, which former Republican President Donald Trump won, compared to Democrats, who were more likely to be dissatisfied with democracy. Dissatisfaction was higher for Democrats who believed Russia’s interference changed election results than Democrats who did not believe Russia’s was decisive.
“The political is personal, and it’s very easy to get caught up in that. And that’s not a bad thing. But it can mean that people walk away from the system entirely, because they feel like the things they care about aren’t being addressed. More participation is always better when it comes to government,” said Madeleine Curtright ’20, who won the Lindley Award for outstanding student research while at U of I and is now pursuing a master’s in public policy at Georgetown University and interning in public policy at Amtrak.