Conspiracy theories, misinformation, COVID-19, and the 2020 election
By Daniel A. Cox and John Halpin
(The survey was conducted by the Survey Center on American Life in collaboration with the Center on American Progress.)
One month from the election, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by a sizable margin among registered voters. Fifty percent of Americans
who are registered to vote plan to vote for Biden in the fall election, and 40 percent say they will vote for President Trump, with 4 percent
backing another candidate and 5 percent planning not to vote this cycle.
Partisan commitments are solid but not fully consolidated at this stage, with 92 percent of Democrats planning to back Biden and 87
percent of Republicans planning to support the president. A relatively small, but perhaps important, percentage of partisan defections
are possible and currently favor the former vice president: Six percent of Republicans plan to vote for Biden, compared to 4 percent of
Democrats who plan to vote for Trump. A plurality of independents break for Biden over Trump by a 48 percent to 32 percent margin, with
17 percent looking at another candidate or not planning to vote in this election.
Democrats and Republicans both believe in conspiracy theories, but different ones.
Sixty percent of Democrats believe Russia has damaging information about Donald Trump, a belief shared by only one in three
A majority (59 percent) of Republicans are convinced that there has been a coordinated effort by “unelected government officials” to
undermine the Trump administration.
Roughly four in 10 Americans are familiar with the QAnon conspiracy theory, and only 16 percent of Americans who have heard or read at
least a little about these conspiracies say they are accurate.
Despite the widespread coverage of the anti-vaxxer movement, very few American believe that vaccines are responsible for autism. Ten
percent of Americans say the statement “childhood vaccines have been shown to cause autism” is mostly or completely accurate.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to embrace inaccurate information about COVID-19.
Close to half (48 percent) of Republicans, compared to 25 percent of Democrats, say COVID-19 is no more serious than the common
flu. Republicans are also more likely to believe that “Hydroxychloroquine is a safe and effective way to treat COVID-19,” (42 percent vs. 5
Less than half of Americans, and only one in five black Americans, say they would get a free FDA-approved vaccine for COVID-19.
Americans are reticent to get a COVID-19 vaccine because of concerns about its safety. Among those who would not get a vaccine,
nearly two-thirds (65 percent) say concerns about safety is the primary reason.
Many American are worried about the potential coziness of political reporters to their subjects.
Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans overall agree that, “most journalists who cover politics and politicians are too friendly with the
people they cover.” Half (50 percent) of the public disagrees.
Prevalence of Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation Among the Public
The September 2020 American Perspectives Survey tested various existing conspiracy theories about politics and public health to
ascertain overall support for these ideas and examine whether demographic or partisan backgrounds are associated with greater
propensity to accept or reject certain theories.
For each case presented in the survey, there is no existing confirmed and corroborated evidence that the claim is accurate. Americans
were asked to weigh the accuracy of statements that are demonstrably false or lacking any supporting evidence: Barack Obama is an
American citizen born in Hawaii, not Kenya; the George W. Bush administration was not in on the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda; there was not
widespread election fraud in the 2016 election; China did not manufacture COVID-19 in a lab and distribute it as part of a bioweapons
program; coronavirus is not like the common flu; and there is no evidence an organized group of bureaucrats has been surreptitiously
working against the Trump administration and similarly no evidence Vladimir Putin possesses compromising information about
Given the nature of conspiracies, many believers of them will not accept facts that contradict their own beliefs. Likewise, conspiracists of
all kinds often argue that the facts themselves are manufactured, thus proving the conspiracy’s underlying truth. This study cannot
resolve these issues and was not designed to change people’s minds or challenge their views. Rather, the goal is merely to measure
the penetration of these false claims among the American public.
Political Conspiracy Theories
Some conspiracy theories are designed to undermine the legitimacy or authority of particular political figures. These political conspiracy
theories generally appeal to part of one political party’s base and are strongly resisted or rejected by members of the opposing party. In
some instances, political leaders play a role in perpetuating a conspiracy theory for personal or political gains.
Voter Fraud in the 2016 Election
Shortly after Trump won the 2016 presidential election, he made an unfounded assertion that he not only captured enough votes to win
the Electoral College but also won the popular vote, despite Hillary Clinton’s confirmed 2.87 million vote advantage. Trump alleged
massive voter fraud cost him at least three million votes. Despite lacking evidence, Trump has repeated this claim in various forms on
multiple occasions. As of this date, there is no evidence to support it.
Among the public, the claim of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election receives little support. Only one-quarter (25 percent) of
Americans say the claim of widespread voter fraud is mostly or completely accurate, while nearly half (49 percent) say it is inaccurate.
One in four (25 percent) Americans express uncertainty about the issue of voter fraud in the 2016 election.
Although Republicans have more consistently expressed concern about the issue of voter fraud in past national elections, Democrats
are more likely than Republicans are to believe the claim that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election. More than one-third
(34 percent) of Democrats, compared to 22 percent of Republicans, say it is mostly or completely accurate that the 2016 election
featured extensive voter fraud.