In Election 2020, how did the media, electoral process fare? Republicans, Democrats disagree

Journalism / Article

The 2020 election was marked by severe political divisions, a public health crisis, unease about the voting process, concerns about misinformation and delays in the projection of the winner and the start of the presidential transition process. But the election was also characterized by historic levels of political participation, a highly engaged electorate and citizens who believed they were well-informed about the election.  

In partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Gallup conducted pre- and post-election surveys with members of Gallup’s probability-based national panel to assess Americans’ views of how key U.S. institutions, including the news media and major internet companies, were supporting democracy during the election campaign. The pre-election survey was administered Sept. 24-Oct. 5 with 1,552 respondents, and the post-election survey was completed Nov. 9-15 with 2,752 respondents. More than 1,000 respondents completed both surveys. The research is part of Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy series.

This study reveals that, while most believe the U.S. news media and democratic institutions met the challenges of the 2020 election campaign, skepticism runs deep among many Americans, particularly Republican Party supporters. Major findings include: 

  • Americans felt increasingly informed, prepared to vote: During the 2020 election campaign, Americans became increasingly likely to follow national news and the election campaign closely and grew more confident they had the necessary information to make informed decisions about voting.
  • Republicans and Democrats disagree on how well the electoral process worked: Fifty-five percent of Americans think the democratic voting process worked well, including 92% of Democrats. Close to nine in 10 Republicans disagree.  
  • Partisans also diverge on how responsible the media was in results coverage: Overall, 59% of Americans say the news media was responsible in its reporting of the election results and outcome. This figure includes 93% of Democrats but only 21% of Republicans. Sixty-three percent of Americans, including just 17% of Republicans, say they believed news media projections of Joe Biden as the winner of the election were accurate.  
  • Americans say their favorite news source covered the campaign well, but Republicans sour on cable news: Eight in 10 U.S. adults say the news source they use most often covered the election campaign well, and majorities say the same about national network TV news, local TV news, national newspapers and radio, generally. Democrats’ ratings of various news sources’ campaign coverage tended to improve after the election, while Republicans’ ratings were worse, particularly with respect to cable TV news.  
  • Voters worry about the influence misinformation had in the election: More than four in five U.S. adults believe they were exposed to misinformation during the election campaign. Six in 10 Americans, including a broad majority of Republicans, think misinformation swayed the outcome of the election. 
  • A nation divided is interested in hearing others’ opinions: Solid majorities across party lines perceive the nation as greatly divided, though most say they are interested in learning about the opinions of those with whom they disagree politically. 

1. Americans became more engaged in the election and more confident they had the information they needed to be an informed voter during the campaign.

Compared with the pre-election survey, more U.S. adults in the post-election survey say they are “very confident” they had the information they needed about where and how to vote and their choice in the presidential election, state elections, Congressional elections and local elections. Overall, they were most confident in knowing where and how to vote and having the necessary information to make a choice for president.  

Attention to the election — and national news more generally — increased in the final months of the campaign. In the Nov. 9-15 survey, 70% of U.S. adults say they followed news about the election “very closely,” up from 59% in the Sept. 24-Oct. 5 survey.  

The gains in election attention and confidence in being informed from before to after the election were greater among political independents, young adults and nonwhites than among other subgroups.  

The post-election survey finds 54% of Americans indicating they were paying “a great deal” of attention to national news, up from 49% in the pre-election survey. The latest level of attention is one of the highest in the Gallup/Knight trend, surpassed only by a 56% reading in March 2020 — during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

While attention to national news increased during the election period, attention to local news dropped and attention to international news remained low.  

More Americans in the post-election survey say they relied on TV news organizations and direct communication with people in their local area for election information than in late September/early October. Overall, television news and social media were the primary sources of election information for voters.  

As expected, the election results in many key states were not immediately known due to the high volume of mail voting. This factor contributed to Americans being highly engaged in learning the election outcome — 43% say they followed coverage of the results “more or less continuously,” while 42% say they “checked in every so often to see what was happening.” Small minorities say they did not make a special effort to follow the results (8%) or made an effort to avoid political election coverage (7%).  

Democrats (56%) are much more likely than Republicans (34%) and independents (36%) to say they were following the results continuously.  

Three in four Americans (76%) say they relied on discussions with family and friends to learn the latest news on the election outcome. Cable TV led among formal news sources,  with 64% using it to find out the latest about where the results stood, followed by national network TV news and major internet companies. Radio, newspapers and local TV were much less commonly used to find out the latest on the outcome.  

2. Majority says the news media covered election results responsibly, but Republicans disagree.

Fifty-nine percent of Americans think the news media’s coverage of the election results and outcome was responsible, including 28% who describe it as “very responsible.” This is the case even though Americans continued to view the U.S. news media negatively overall, with 33% saying they have a favorable opinion of it and 53% an unfavorable one. 

Republicans and Democrats differ greatly in their opinions of whether the news media responsibly covered the election results and outcome. Ninety-three percent of Democrats say the news media coverage was responsible, including 52% saying it was very responsible. The majority of Republicans say the coverage was “not responsible at all.”    

When asked to assess media coverage of the two presidential candidates’ campaigns more generally, Americans think the coverage of Biden’s campaign was significantly more fair than coverage of Trump’s campaign, 74% to 55%, respectively. The difference is mostly accounted for by a 40-point gap in Republicans’ opinions of the two campaigns — 53% say media coverage of Biden was fair, but only 13% say the same about Trump’s campaign. This gap is consistent with Republicans’ concerns about the media’s reporting on Trump more generally. In contrast, Democrats rate coverage of the two campaigns equally.     

In addition to partisanship, attention to national news is also strongly related to Americans’ assessments of the fairness of coverage of the two campaigns, with those paying less attention showing the biggest Biden-Trump differences. There is a 14-point gap among those who say they pay “a great deal” of attention to national news (78% to 64%), a 17-point gap among those who pay a “moderate amount” of attention (70% to 53%), but a 34-point among those who indicate they pay little or no attention to national news (60% to 26%). 

Asked to assess news media coverage of the election more generally, Americans gave the highest ratings for election coverage to national network TV news, local TV news, national newspapers and radio, and the news source they use most often. Opinions on how various news sources covered the election were largely unchanged after the election compared with before it.  

Even though ratings of cable news coverage did not change much overall, partisans did shift their views of the reports after the election. Generally, Democrats’ opinions of coverage from most types of news organizations were better after the election than before, while Republicans’ opinions were worse. Specifically, Republicans’ opinions of cable news coverage of the election saw the largest decrease, moving from a 45% “excellent” or “good” rating before the election to 29% post-election. Conversely, Democrats’ ratings of cable news election coverage were among the largest increases, from 61% to 73%.  

3. Despite challenges, majority says the democratic process worked well this election; Democrats and Republicans hold opposing views.

The 2020 campaign was uniquely challenging due largely to COVID-19, which led to an expansion of voting by mail in many states and unease about Americans’ ability to vote. Concerns about the integrity of the voting process abounded amid allegations of delays in postal delivery of ballots, fraud and vote suppression. The November survey was conducted after the Associated Press and major TV news organizations projected Biden as the winner and as the Trump campaign pressed legal challenges to the voting process and results in several key states.   

In the end, more Americans voted than ever before, and a majority (55%) say the democratic voting process worked “very well” (36%) or “well” (19%). However, opinions of how well the process worked seem to be linked to people’s satisfaction with the outcome, as the vast majority of Democrats (92%) say the process worked well and the vast majority of Republicans (89%) say it did not.  

The post-election poll was taken in the days after news media organizations projected Biden as the winner on Nov. 7. While most of those surveyed in the Nov. 9-15 poll (63%) believe the news reports, 37% say they were inaccurate. Ninety-nine percent of Democrats, 64% of independents and 17% of Republicans describe the media projections of a Biden victory as “accurate.”  

4. Most Americans say they were exposed to misinformation during the election year and that it was more prevalent than in 2016. Although they are aware of major internet companies’ attempts to thwart it, partisans differ sharply in their assessments of how that worked. 

The November survey included a series of questions about Americans’ perceptions of misinformation, defined as stories that are “made up or cannot be verified as accurate, but are presented to readers as if they are accurate.” More than four in five Americans believe they were exposed to either “a great deal” (50%) or “a fair amount” (34%) of misinformation in this election year. Republicans (92%) are more likely than Democrats (80%) and independents (83%) to say so. 

Perceptions of the proliferation of misinformation are growing among the public, even though it is difficult to verify whether there has been an actual increase. Nevertheless, these perceptions alone may be enough to erode some trust. 

Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults say they were exposed to more misinformation in 2020 than in 2016. At the same time, 26% think the amount of misinformation they saw this year was the same as four years ago, and 9% think there was less. While majorities of all party groups believe they encountered more false information this year than in 2016, Republicans (79%) were much more likely than Democrats (52%) or independents (66%) to think that was the case. 

Majorities of those who say they were exposed to misinformation this election year believe they were exposed to it on social media and cable TV news. This finding is in light of the fact that major internet companies handled misinformation differently in the run-up to the election and afterward by enacting measures to label false information — something they largely did not do before this year. 

Roughly three-quarters of Republicans, Democrats and independents who believe they were exposed to misinformation cite Facebook as a possible source. However, partisans’ views on other potential exposure sites differ significantly. Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to believe they encountered false information on national network TV news, cable television news, in national newspapers and on Google. These views underscore Republicans’ lack of trust in mainstream news sources.  

Conversely, Democrats are somewhat more likely than Republicans to say they saw misinformation on Twitter. Twitter proactively labeled or removed tweets that contained misinformation, including some from President Trump. Facebook and Twitter are the only two sources that majorities of Democrats cite as purveyors of false information. 

Meanwhile, the public became somewhat more aware of the federal government’s attempts to regulate how these major internet companies operate in the U.S. over the course of the fall months; Congress held hearings on the matter in October. In all, 57% of Americans said they knew “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about these efforts, up from 50% in September. 

Americans also continue to show an even higher degree of awareness about major internet companies’ efforts to rein in harmful content. Seventy-six percent say they have heard at least a fair amount about actions these companies have taken in their approach to combatting harmful content on their platforms. Gallup and Knight first documented the public’s high awareness of these issues earlier this year.

The public is largely divided in their assessment of how major internet companies dealt with trying to stop the spread of false information about the election. Forty percent say they did not go far enough, 33% believe they went too far, and 25% think they were about right. 

Two-thirds of Republicans think the companies went too far, while 60% of Democrats do not think they went far enough. In addition to stricter content moderation, Twitter banned political ads, and Facebook restricted them in the final week of the election and banned them after Election Day. 

Americans’ opinions about major internet companies’ actions to limit election misinformation generally are in line with their opinions about ways to stop misinformation. A September survey found 52% of Americans said major internet companies were “not tough enough” in removing content from their websites and apps that some people consider harmful. Half as many, 26%, thought they were “too tough.” Partisans’ views were much like the latest data, with a majority of Republicans saying the companies were too tough and a majority of Democrats saying they were not tough enough. 

5. Majorities of Americans think the election outcome was swayed by misinformation on social media; more than three-quarters say internet sites, talk shows and national cable television news were major sources of untruth.  

Earlier this year, a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey found 81% of Americans expressing concern that misinformation might sway the outcome of the election. Following Election Day, more than three in five Americans, 62%, say the outcome of the election was swayed by misinformation on social media, while 37% say it was not. 

The poll did not assess the effects of other factors beyond misinformation on the election outcome, so it is not possible to know whether they saw misinformation as a greater or lesser influence on the results. While academic and public policy experts may issue a final verdict on the impact of misinformation on the 2020 election outcome, at this early stage, most Americans think it did affect the outcome in some fashion.  

Prior to the election, large majorities of Republicans (74%) and Democrats (92%) were at least moderately concerned that misinformation would sway the election. Ultimately, Democrats’ concerns were not borne out given that after the election, those who think the outcome was swayed disproportionately identify as Republicans (82%), while 46% of Democrats express the same viewpoint. 

Given the partisan bent of those who think the election was swayed, it follows that they are more likely to believe President Trump would have won if not for misinformation. Most of the rest say Biden would have won by more than he did. 

Likewise, 61% of those with an overall unfavorable opinion of the news media think the election was swayed by misinformation and that without it, Trump would have won. Yet, 51% of those with a favorable view of the news media do not think the election was swayed by misinformation. 

Clear majorities of Americans who say misinformation swayed the election outcome think internet websites, television and radio talk show hosts or commentators, national cable TV news and social media posts from individuals in the U.S. were major sources. 

While foreign interference in the 2016 election was widely publicized, n 2020i, more Americans consider domestic interference a major source of misinformation. Roughly half name the presidential candidates themselves as sources of misinformation, only about a quarter identify local news organizations.

6. Most see a nation deeply divided but are open to learning about others’ views.

Americans widely agree the country is divided — 73% describe it as “deeply divided” and 25% as “divided.” Republicans (74%), Democrats (75%) and independents (67%) share the view that the nation is deeply divided.  

Roughly two-thirds of Americans blame major internet companies and cable TV news “a great deal” for political divisions in this country. They are somewhat less likely to blame national newspapers and national network TV news — with about four in 10 doing so — and much less likely to blame radio, local newspapers and local TV news. 

One way the news media could attempt to alleviate political division is to spend less time covering political news. Close to half of Americans, 47%, would like the news media to devote less attention to political news and more attention to other topics in the coming year. Ten percent want more coverage of political news, and 41% would like to see the same amount.  

But after an acrimonious political campaign, the majority of U.S. adults (58%) still think it would be better for Americans to continue to follow political news closely over the next several months rather than take a break from following political news (39%).   

Prior Gallup/Knight Foundation work has shown that political bias is one of the chief complaints Americans have about the news media. A plurality of 45% of U.S. adults believe their most relied upon news source is fair to both parties, but more say it favors the Democratic Party (39%) than the Republican Party (16%), likely reflecting perceptions of liberal media bias.  

Half of Americans say they would continue to rely on their most preferred news source if it decided to change its reporting and commentary to convince people it does not favor one of the political parties. Thirty-three percent say they would continue to use the source but use other sources more often, while 16% say they would look for other news sources.  

The majority of those who believe their top news sources favor the Democratic Party, 56%, say they would stick with it as their go-to source if it changed its coverage. That compares with 41% of those who think their top news source favors the Republican Party. However, rather than abandon it completely, this group is inclined to continue to use their top source but rely on other sources more often, with 43% favoring that approach.

Regardless of what news sources they use, Republicans (22%) are more likely than Democrats (10%) and independents (16%) to say they would look for other news sources if their preferred news source changed the tenor of its coverage.  

Among Americans who identify FOX News as their top overall news source, 41% say they would stick with it if it changed the nature of its coverage, 38% would still use it but rely on other sources more often, and 20% would no longer use it.

Even as Americans believe the nation is deeply divided, they express openness to learning about others who do not share their political views. Twenty-five percent say they have “a great deal,” and 51% “a fair amount,” of interest in learning about the opinions of people who disagree with them politically. Independents are most likely to want to learn about others’ views, followed by Democrats and Republicans, but majorities of all three groups say they are interested in doing so.

People see talking directly with others who hold different political views as the best way to facilitate that learning – 66% think it is the best approach. Eleven percent believe the best way to learn about others with differing political views is through the news media, 8% through social media and 7% through public opinion polls.  

Conclusion

The 2020 election tested the resilience of U.S. institutions. In many ways, Americans believe the institutions they rely on for information, including the news media, were successful. Americans believe the news media were responsible in their reporting of the election results and tend to be more positive than negative about election coverage from a variety of different news organizations in general. Majorities also think news media coverage of both campaigns was fair.  

Americans are confident they had the information they needed to make informed voting decisions, particularly for the presidential election. Still, they remain concerned about the prevalence of misinformation and the effects it can have on election outcomes, even if those effects are difficult to quantify in the real world. They see major internet companies as still needing to do work to address that challenge. 

In the end, a majority of Americans believe the electoral process worked well, and that majority could be larger today after recounts in key states, and legal challenges have affirmed the initial result of a Biden victory, as projected by the news media. 

Notably, these positive views of the election and the institutions that supported it are held by a relatively small minority of Republicans. This mistrust is apparent in the finding that, at the time of the survey, most Republicans did not believe news media projections that Biden won the election. Whether those views have changed given recent developments in the challenges to the outcome and the beginning of the formal Biden administration transition is unclear. If those views have not changed, having a sizable segment of the population not accept the results as legitimate creates a significant challenge for our democracy.