Credit: Clay Banks

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Behavioral Science

MIT Sloan survey examines false beliefs about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jan. 12, 2021 – The allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential election raised important questions about the potential consequences of such false beliefs and how Donald Trump voters might accept Joseph Biden as the president. In a recent survey study, MIT Sloan School of Management Prof. David Rand, along with Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina, found that false beliefs about election fraud were widespread among Trump voters and not merely a fringe phenomenon. Further, their study showed that more otherwise-knowledgeable Trump voters had less accurate beliefs about the election, and that a concession by Trump would lead a majority of his voters to accept Biden’s victory as legitimate.

“For months leading up to the election, false claims about potential voter fraud were common on the political right and increased as mail-in ballots favored Biden. However, no evidence for systemic election fraud has been produced and all legal challenges were rejected by the courts. Thus, these claims constitute misinformation,” says Rand.

In their study, Pennycook and Rand investigated the extent to which voters believed these false claims about election fraud and about who won the 2020 election. They conducted a survey on Nov. 10, 2020, three days after the election was called for Biden by all major news organizations.

They asked 617 Trump voters and 1,036 Biden voters (proportionate to the national distribution on age, gender, ethnicity, and region) about their beliefs related to the election. Around 77 percent of Trump voters believed that fraud was widespread in the 2020 election, and 65 percent believed that Trump won.

Although only 22 percent of Trump voters believed Biden’s win to be legitimate at the time of the survey, another 21 percent said they would be convinced of Biden’s legitimacy either by Trump losing his legal challenges or by Trump conceding. Another 6 percent would be convinced by Trump losing his legal challenges but not by him conceding. And another 11 percent would be convinced by Trump conceding but not by him losing his legal challenges. The final 40 percent of Trump voters said they would remain unconvinced of the legitimacy of Biden’s win in either case.

The survey also examined voters’ basic political knowledge and engagement with election news. Surprisingly, they found that Trump voters with higher levels of political knowledge and engagement had less accurate beliefs about the election. The opposite was true of Biden voters.

In addition, the researchers found that partisan spite and endorsement of political violence were equally low between Trump and Biden voters, and rejected by the majority of voters for both candidates. The majority of Trump voters, 88 percent, said that they would not protest if Trump does not concede and Biden is inaugurated as president.

“It’s interesting that few voters on either side endorsed political violence, but as we saw last week, it only takes a few individuals with a willingness to engage in violence to have a very large negative impact,” says Rand.

Rand and Pennycook are the authors of “Examining false beliefs about voter fraud in the wake of the 2020 presidential election”. Their paper was published this month in the Harvard Kennedy School of Misinformation Review.

The MIT Sloan School of Management

The MIT Sloan School of Management is where smart, independent leaders come together to solve problems, create new organizations, and improve the world. Learn more at mitsloan.mit.edu.

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