Voters agree democracy faces a crisis. They disagree vehemently about who is to blame

Biden, wearing a dark blue suit, a white shirt and a blue tie, stands at a lectern, pointing with his right hand as he speaks
President Biden underscores threats to democracy during a speech at Washington’s Union Station on Wednesday.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

As the 2022 midterm campaigns grind toward a snarling close, voters across party lines agree on at least one thing — American democracy is in crisis. Illustrating one aspect of the problem, however, partisans deeply disagree about who and what is to blame.

In California, 78% of registered voters agreed that “American democracy is in crisis and is at risk of failing,” according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll released Friday; just 17% disagreed.

Democratic candidates have stressed that theme in their campaigns, but Democratic voters were only slightly more likely than Republicans to say that democracy is in crisis, 83% to 73%, according to the poll, which was co-sponsored by The Times.

Concern about a crisis of democracy hit its highest point among voters who identified as strong liberals — 90% of them described democracy as being in a crisis, but so did 74% of strong conservatives.

Agreement breaks down after that, however.

Agreement on the crisis, disagreement about the cause

Ever since a mob of people supporting then-President Trump stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Democrats have sounded alarms about the danger the former president and his backers pose to democracy.


They point to Trump’s continued lying about the election results, the often-wild conspiracy theories about election theft put forward by his most fervent acolytes and the growing number of threats against election workers and elected officials — a specter of violence vividly illustrated by the recent attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband by a man prosecutors say was looking to kidnap her.

Democrats’ concern about the threat to democracy got its highest-profile airing in early September when President Biden traveled to Philadelphia for a prime-time speech outside Independence Hall in which he said that “Donald Trump and these MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”

Biden returned to the subject on Wednesday in a speech in Washington. The refusal of many Republican candidates to pledge that they will accept the results of elections, “is the path to chaos in America,” Biden said.

To the deep frustration of many Democrats, however, such warnings don’t appear to have persuaded many voters outside of the party’s own ranks.

The new California poll and recent national surveys on the same topic help explain why: Republican partisans agree that democracy is in trouble, but see a set of threats that is almost a mirror image of the ones Democrats describe.

Democrats see democracy imperiled by public figures who deny the validity of elections; Republicans see a threat from what they believe is unreliable vote counting. Democrats decry organized efforts to make voting harder; Republicans fear hordes of illegal voters swaying elections with invalid ballots.

A poll released this week by YouGov for CBS illustrated that nationally: When asked what they meant by democracy being under threat, Democrats were most likely to cite the refusal of some candidates to accept election results (79%), political extremism (78%), and gerrymandering (61%). Republicans were most likely to list votes not being counted correctly (76%), ineligible voters casting ballots (72%), and corruption (70%).

The top two Republican fears have been extensively investigated and found to be groundless: Efforts by Trump supporters to uncover proof of irregularities in the vote count, including audit efforts in Arizona and other states, have turned up nothing. And repeated efforts by Republican officials to find cases of voter fraud have failed to uncover anything more than a handful of unrelated cases, many committed by Republicans.


Those failures, however, have not dissuaded true believers. About a year ago, a Monmouth University poll found that one-third of Americans believed Biden won in 2020 only because of fraud. When the poll asked the same question in September, those numbers had barely budged: 29% of Americans, including 61% of Republicans.

On some measures, the problem has worsened. A new Pew Research Center poll released Monday found that on top of their continued concerns about mail-in balloting, Republicans are now expressing less confidence that votes cast in person on election day would be accurately counted.

The new California survey highlighted those concerns, as well. Statewide, nearly 9 in 10 Democrats, but fewer than half of Republicans, said they were confident that voting machine tallies of election results are counted accurately. One quarter of Republicans, and a third of voters who identified as strong conservatives, said they were not confident at all in the machine count.

Trump voters in California overwhelmingly said they believed that election security was under threat, with 77% saying so, compared with 13% who said it was strong. Biden voters, who make up a large majority in California, were almost evenly divided — 41% said election security was threatened and 47% called it strong.

Nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters said that political divisiveness in the U.S. is at a high level, rating it as eight or higher on a 10-point scale where 1 means no political divisions and 10 means divisions that would put the country on the edge of civil war. Nearly 25% of voters chose that highest level, with the share rising to nearly 40% among people who identified as strong conservatives.

In both camps, voters who are most engaged in politics, with the strongest ideological leanings — and generally the most education — are most exercised over the threats they see.

Majorities on both sides of the divide said they saw political violence as a major threat to democracy — of five issues tested on the poll, it was the one Democrats were most likely to label a major threat and was second on the list among Republicans.

On other issues, however, partisans could be living in different universes.

More than 8 in 10 voters who identified as liberals said that organized efforts to make voting harder for some people posed a major threat to democracy. Black voters were especially concerned about efforts to make voting harder — nearly three-quarters of them saw that as a major threat.

Among conservatives, fewer than 4 in 10 took that view.

Democrats and liberals also saw a major threat from people trying to overturn or change election results. More than three-quarters of liberals labeled that as a major threat. But among conservatives about half agreed.

On the conservative side of the aisle, illegal voting was the top concern. Nearly 8 in 10 California voters who identified as strong conservatives said they believed that people voting illegally posed a major threat. Just 14% of strong liberals said that illegal voting was a major threat. About 6 in 10 liberals said it’s not a threat at all.

There was one notable counter-trend, however: Latino voters in California, who remain a heavily Democratic constituency, were more likely than either Black or white California voters to see illegal voting as a major threat — nearly half said it was. Latino voters who primarily speak Spanish were the most likely to express that view.

The poll found one other area of bipartisan agreement — although not a cheerful one: In both parties, around 6 in 10 voters said they were pessimistic about the ability of Americans of different political views to come together.

The “challenge of addressing the problem” is “daunting,” said Berkeley political scientist Eric Schickler, the co-director of the Berkeley institute. Voters agree there’s a critical problem, but “Democrats and Republicans disagree sharply about the nature of the threats.”

Berkeley IGS/Los Angeles Times poll

— The race for mayor of Los Angeles has become a tight contest heading into the final week, the final preelection Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll finds. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) is holding a 45% to 41% lead over Rick Caruso among likely voters, as Ben Oreskes reported. Caruso’s support has grown by 10 points since our previous poll in September.

— The race for Los Angeles County sheriff seems to offer less suspense. Robert Luna, the challenger, holds a steady lead over incumbent Sheriff Alex Villanueva, 40% to 32%, Alene Tchekmedyian reported. As the number of undecided voters has declined, both men have gained support, but Luna’s margin has held steady.

— And in statewide races, the poll found Gov. Gavin Newsom cruising toward reelection and voters headed toward approval of an amendment to the state constitution to protect abortion rights, Phil Willon reported. A pair of ballot initiatives on sports betting are both headed toward defeat.

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California congressional races

— After four years of besting chief executives in viral congressional hearing exchanges and building a fundraising juggernaut, Rep. Katie Porter has become what was once unimaginable: a national Democratic star from Orange County, the onetime conservative bastion. As the midterm elections sprint to a close, however, Porter is locked in a fierce race against Republican Scott Baugh. As Melanie Mason reports, at stake is not only her political trajectory or the balance of power in the House of Representatives. The contest in the 47th Congressional District has also become a battle for Orange County’s ideological identity.

— Nearly 450 miles long, California’s 3rd Congressional District contains scores of small towns from its southern border in the Mojave Desert where Inyo and San Bernardino counties meet, along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the western shore of Lake Tahoe, to the southern Cascade Range where Plumas County ends. As Tom Curwen reports, its an impossibly sprawling district in which many residents feel unrepresented. “Representatives don’t understand the nature of people who are this remote,” said Judyth Greenburgh, who has lived in the small town of Darwin since 2008. “Either district — old or new — can’t really understand what it is like to be so far away from everything.”

— Regardless of which candidate wins, California’s 34th Congressional District, which includes Koreatown, downtown L.A., Eagle Rock and Boyle Heights, will have a Democratic congressman — the top two in the June primary, Rep. Jimmy Gomez and David Kim, an immigration attorney, are both liberal Democrats. As Jeong Park reported, the race turns on what it means to be a progressive and what style of politics voters prefer.

— Incumbent Democratic Rep. Josh Harder and Republican San Joaquin County Supervisor Tom Patti are vying to represent California’s 9th Congressional District. The agricultural district in the San Joaquin Valley is centered around Stockton. Terry Castleman examined where the two stand on major issues, part of The Times series of looks at the candidates in 10 key contests in the state.

— The race in California’s 26th Congressional District, mostly based in Ventura County but with a sliver of Los Angeles County, features veteran Democratic lawmaker Julia Brownley facing off with former federal prosecutor Matt Jacobs. Seema Mehta reported on the race, one in which the Democrat could be vulnerable if Tuesday brings a strong Republican tide.

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The latest from the campaign trail

— A U.S. district judge in Phoenix limited the ability of a far-right group to monitor ballot drop boxes in Arizona by restricting photo and video, ordering members to stay at least 75 feet away from the receptacles, and barring the open carry of firearms and wearing of body armor within 250 feet. As Sarah Wire reported, people wearing body armor and carrying weapons have been observed in recent days photographing and filming voters and their vehicles at ballot collection boxes in multiple states after former President Trump and his allies urged supporters to monitor them. Judge Michael Liburdi had previously turned down a request for a more sweeping injunction.

The latest from Washington

— Republicans and allied groups nationwide pumped about $50 million into campaign ads this cycle invoking, condemning or demonizing Pelosi, according to an analysis from AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm, Nolan McCaskill reported. The total exceeded the $45 million spent in 2020 on ads featuring anti-Pelosi references in House races, the firm said. The intense focus on Pelosi has come under new scrutiny in the aftermath of the attack on her husband, Paul.

— If Benjamin Netanyahu once again becomes Israel’s prime minister — as now seems likely — he could create a new set of foreign policy headaches for Biden, Leila Miller, Nabih Bulos and Tracy Wilkinson reported.

— Biden spent much of Thursday stumping for his party in New Mexico, Erin Logan reported. He touted his administration’s policies, implored voters to back Democrats and warned that next week’s elections will shape the nation for the next 20 years. “This is not a referendum,” Biden said. “It’s a choice between two vastly different versions of America.” Late in the evening, he arrived in Oceanside to campaign for Rep. Mike Levin, one of California’s more endangered House incumbents, Logan and Mehta reported.

The latest from California

— The race for mayor could turn on the San Fernando Valley, Oreskes reported. In the June primary, Caruso won the Valley, but lost the rest of the city to Bass. Now, a strong showing in the Valley — home to nearly 4 in 10 voters — is critical to Caruso’s chances. Although many people still associate the Valley with conservative, white homeowners, that’s not been an accurate depiction of its voters for decades. The region is about 46% Latino, slightly below the citywide total of 48%, and nearly half its residents are renters.

— Oreskes and Matt Hamilton teamed up for a close look at one of the strongest influences shaping Caruso — his late father, Henry J. Caruso, who built an empire of auto sales before doing time for fraud. It’s a fascinating and little-known tale of a man who was once among the best-known figures in Southern California.

— Newsom, in a largely symbolic, but still striking move, is rejecting every local homeless action plan in the state, demanding more intensity when it comes to getting people off the streets and into homes, Anita Chabria writes in her column. The move comes a few days before an election that has seen the condition of California’s streets used on a national scale as proof that blue state policies are failing. “I’m taking accountability,” Newsom said in an interview. “I love this state. It breaks my heart the people just trashing us.” But, he acknowledged, “They’re right.”

— Since July, when she was appointed to replace ousted Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin, interim San Francisco Dist. Atty. Brooke Jenkins has become one of the city’s best-known figures, Hannah Wiley reported. Much like her predecessor, who lost a recall election, Jenkins has become controversial, as well.

— For newcomers running for office in Los Angeles, support from some of the city’s many political clubs can provide an essential boost, with the groups calling prospective voters or hosting meet-and-greet events with the candidates. But as Dakota Smith and Summer Lin reported, this election season, two incidents have brought scrutiny to the clubs, putting leaders on the defensive with accusations that money can sway their endorsements.

— David Zahniser examined the harshly negative race between City Councilmember Paul Koretz and accountant Kenneth Mejia for the post of city controller.

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