If ‘democracy is on the ballot,’ why don’t voters seem to care?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Ever since the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, Democrats have persistently made the case that former President Donald Trump and his backers in the Republican Party pose a unique threat to the stability of American democracy.

Despite all these warnings — and the presence of hundreds of election-denying GOP candidates on the ballot across the country — voters do not appear to be treating perceived threats to the electoral system as a key issue in the November midterms.

It’s not that they don’t believe the threats are real, but they largely view them as less important than other problems. In a New York Times/Siena College poll released earlier this month, 71 percent of voters said they believe democracy is at risk, but only 7 percent said they view it as the most important issue facing the country.

Part of the reason for the disconnect is that a significant share of those who worry about the validity of elections are Republican voters who have bought into Trump’s thoroughly debunked claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent. But even among Democratic voters, protecting democracy consistently rates below issues like the economy and inflation.

Many election experts say there’s ample reason to believe that Democrats’ concerns about the future of U.S. democracy are well-founded. On top of documented efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election, about 60 percent of Americans will have an election denier on their midterm ballot, according to a tally compiled by FiveThirtyEight. Some of those candidates are running for offices such as governor, secretary of state and attorney general, which would give them significant power over how elections are conducted in their states if they were to win. There have also been a number of reports detailing how local officials and poll workers may be preparing to undermine voting procedures next month.

Why there’s debate

If the fate of American democracy itself is on the ballot, as Democrats have repeatedly warned, then why do voters seem to be prioritizing other issues?

The most commonly raised explanation, from experts across the political spectrum, is that voters always put the most emphasis on issues that affect them directly. They say inflation, crime, gas prices and other things that people experience in their daily lives resonate more than abstract concepts like democracy.

Many left-leaning pundits have also made the case that in the two years since Trump attempted to overturn the election, Americans have become gradually desensitized to the GOP’s antidemocratic actions. Others blame the news media for treating the campaign to undermine democracy as just another partisan issue that should be viewed with the same “both sides” lens as debates over tax rates and health care policy.

Many Republicans falsely believe that the 2020 election was stolen. But even among the minority of conservatives who accept that Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate, there’s a widely held view that Democrats have overstated how much danger the GOP poses to democracy — to the point where voters have largely tuned them out. Others on the right argue that Democrats forfeited any opportunity to make that case by allowing problems like inflation and crime to become such dominant issues.

What’s next

Most election-denying Republican candidates are running for seats in deep red districts and are expected to win comfortably. But some of the most consequential races are taking place in swing states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada and are expected to be extremely close come Election Day.


Many voters consider Trump to be the only true danger to democracy

“As we’ve seen throughout this campaign cycle, Democrats are attempting to run against Donald Trump, who hasn’t been in office for 21 months. But that won’t cut it when pocketbook/kitchen table issues blot out everything else, especially in races for the Senate and the House.” — Joe Concha, The Hill

Americans have gradually become desensitized to the threats democracy faces

“There’s something bigger going on here than just the usual political churn, or even the idea that voters are more motivated by pocketbook issues than amorphous ones like a potential future need for abortion. Voters are adapting to authoritarianism. And that doesn’t just portend a bad outcome for Democrats in November; it suggests America’s democratic future is at acute risk.” — Jill Filipovic, Guardian

Many voters lost faith in American elections years ago

“The bottom line is that democracy itself is broadly perceived as so broken that Trump’s deliberate effort to break it by an act of insurrection is being accepted by an alarming percentage of the population as just another warning light. They see it as no more significant than ineffective anti-inflation policies rather than as a unique threat to our system of self-government.” — Ed Kilgore, New York

Few voters appreciate the threat democracy is under

“Liberal democracy will not make a comeback unless people are willing to struggle on its behalf. The problem is that many who grow up living in peaceful, prosperous liberal democracies begin to take their form of government for granted.” — Francis Fukuyama, Atlantic

It shouldn’t be a surprise that voters aren’t convinced by Democrats’ warnings

“Why are Americans more concerned about inflation than about the catastrophic prognostications of the partisan press and its ersatz counterparts in MAGA-world? Because, sensibly enough, they believe that only one of those problems is real.” — Charles C.W. Cooke, National Review

Overuse has turned warnings into a meaningless cliché

“The phrase a ‘threat to American democracy’ is so commonplace these days that it hardly carries any meaning.” — Emily B. Finley, Wall Street Journal

Democrats have failed to keep the issue at the top of voters’ minds

“While the President claimed Trump’s ‘MAGA’ fans had embraced ‘semi-fascism’ and some Democratic campaigns have run ads warning of an autocratic GOP, Democrats are running far harder on the conservative Supreme Court majority’s overturning of abortion rights and their new law trimming some prescription drug costs.” — Stephen Collinson, CNN

The media isn’t making the danger clear to voters

“The results of next month’s voting will determine if there are any more real elections in the future. … And yet these issues are almost totally absent from mainstream political reporting, and apparently, the minds of swing voters who will decide the control of Congress and statewide offices around the country.” — Ryan Cooper, MSNBC

The news media has treated attacks on democracy as just another partisan debate

“Because the news media tries to cover both parties equally critically, the story of U.S. politics today is often depicted as an extreme Republican Party facing an almost-as-extreme Democratic Party dominated by over-educated elites who are hostile to the values of average Americans and leave them little choice but to vote Republican. But that’s an attempt to turn a one-sided problem into a two-sided one.” — Perry Bacon Jr., Washington Post

Voters always prioritize the concrete issues that affect them directly

“Americans these days — and particularly the swing voters who are being watched and courted so assiduously — are underwhelmed by abstract ideas, faraway crises or problems scheduled to materialize sometime in the future. With some exceptions, they’re focused on the here and now. Pocketbook issues. Quality-of-life issues. Better schools. Safer streets. The cost of living.” — Nicholas Goldberg, Los Angeles Times

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Samuel Corum/Getty Images