When the Iowa caucuses went to hell in a handbasket last week, they probably took some of Americans’ last morsels of trust in the political system down too. But when I asked political scientists and psychologists about the impact of the bungled caucuses on overall political cynicism, they, by and large, weren’t particularly concerned. The vast majority of voters probably won’t care all that much, they said; instead, these experts are more worried about the indirect effects. Long after the shoddy apps have been forgotten, mistrust and bitterness could still be trickling down from political elites to everyone else.
We’re already primed to think something’s wrong with our voting system. Even before the caucuses, more than 40 percent of Americans felt the country wasn’t prepared to keep the November elections secure, and 45 percent thought it was likely that not all votes were going to be counted. Partisans of a losing candidate are less likely to believe their vote was counted correctly, while winners get a boost in electoral confidence that can last for months.
But the Iowa debacle is important because it caused political elites to be as openly distrustful as some voters already are. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez tweeted an exasperated-sounding call for a recanvass of the results. Congresswoman and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard railed against the lack of transparency and integrity in the caucuses. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has also questioned the integrity of the process. And President Trump’s two eldest sons both claimed that the caucuses had been rigged. (There is no evidence to suggest the caucus results were altered — just that the reporting process was run incompetently.)
These are all people at the top of the political influence pyramid, who have fans who share their political ideology and who have the media attention necessary to make their opinions widely known. The public doesn’t just thoughtlessly follow what these political elites say, of course, but study after study has shown that what they say does matter.
For example, one 2018 paper used Trump’s campaign rhetoric about Mexican immigrants to conduct a natural experiment in how elites shape public opinion. The study compared the results of a fortuitously timed Gallup poll that asked about immigrants and immigration. Some of the poll was conducted before Trump’s June 16, 2015, speech where he called immigrants “rapists” and criminals, and some of the poll was conducted afterwards. The study found that public opinion against immigration hardened after the speech — the share of Americans who wanted to see less immigration jumped from 25 percent the day of the speech to 39 percent 10 days later.
“How does democracy work? It works when losers believe there’s been a fair election,” said Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. “And that’s something that we’ve taken for granted in this country for a long time.”
But it’s becoming more acceptable for political elites to challenge the outcomes of elections and make claims of fraud or outright electoral theft. Trump, after all, spent most of his 2016 campaign alleging that the election he eventually won would be stolen from him.
That’s a problem for the future of democracy, said Eitan Hersch, a professor of political science at Tufts University and past FiveThirtyEight contributor, and unlike a lot of other political problems this country faces, it’s one that both parties are engaging in. “Both parties have an incentive to rile their base with discussion of elections being stolen,” he told me. “And that’s probably bad for the system if people increasingly believe elections aren’t fair.” That seems to be what is happening.
What’s more, researchers are starting to suspect that the way outrage and accusations of stolen elections trickle down might do more than indirectly reduce trust — it could also lead the most level-headed voters to disengage from politics.
This is a fairly new idea, rooted in attempts to better understand a particular demographic of American voters — people who call themselves independents but really aren’t. Although the Pew Research Center has found that 38 percent of Americans say they’re independents (up from 33 percent in 1994), the vast majority of them are actually “leaners” — people who cop to having at least some level of party affiliation. Only 7 percent of independents are actually independent. The rest behave pretty similarly to partisans: Their beliefs and votes mostly track with those of their sorta favored party.
Yanna Krupnikov, a professor of political science at Stony Brook University, has been studying this demographic, trying to figure out what its deal is. She’s come to the conclusion that these folks are not so much noncommittal as annoyed and disaffected. For example, while leaners mostly act like partisans, they do report lower rates of voting than partisans. They’re also more likely to have negative opinions about both parties and dislike the candidates they have to choose from at all levels of government. Leaners may vote the same as partisans (when they do vote), but they aren’t happy about it.
And Krupnikov thinks that unhappiness stems from being sick and tired of hearing the complaints of partisans — particularly the minority of partisans who are heavily emotionally invested in the minutiae of politics. These partisans matter, said Krupnikov and others, because they’re the ones listening to political elites and helping relay elites’ ideas to the masses. But often times, the masses don’t want to hear about it.
When leaners hear about what happened in Iowa from news-obsessed partisans, “it might persuade you that politics is about being angry and that politics isn’t for you,” she said. “People become more likely to call themselves independents when they are reminded that partisans are constantly bickering with each other.”
Krupnikov’s fear is that the outrage coming from elites and rank-and-file partisans could lead to more disaffected Americans who vote less and are less engaged in the political system. That concerns Hasen, too. There are studies that suggest the people most emotionally invested in politics — the ones who are seeking out the most information about it — are the ones most likely to be misled by inaccurate information. America needs the influence of the people who are less excitable, he told me.
The risk of Iowa is that the partisans shouting about it will drive them away.
Maggie Koerth is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight. @maggiekb1