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鶹ý Unity Poll explains why democracy may take center stage in this week’s presidential debate—and the campaign more broadly

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The 鶹ý Project on Unity and American Democracy released national polling results measuring Americans’ unity and beliefs on government and democracy. 

As the nation approaches the first presidential debate of 2024, the state of U.S. democracy is expected to be one of its major issues. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump paint very different portraits of America and the future of democracy, and the latest 鶹ý Unity Poll shows why these contenders are putting forth these assessments: The public expresses widespread concern about the state of democracy and our Constitution.

The poll asked about the public’s assessment of our democracy and the Constitution, and nearly half of respondents (49 percent) said they felt American democracy is under attack.

This sentiment was stronger among Republicans, with 53 percent expressing this view, including 78 percent of those who lean toward MAGA. It appears that Trump’s claims of a stolen 2020 election and politically motivated felony convictions are resonating with his core supporters.

Democrats reported a more positive outlook, with 35 percent viewing democracy as under attack and 57 percent believing it is tested but not under attack.

The poll found similar patterns when asking instead about the Constitution, with 47 percent of respondents viewing the nation’s founding document as under attack: 70 percent of MAGA Republicans, 60 percent of Republicans overall and 36 percent of Democrats.

There was also consensus among Americans, regardless of party, about dissatisfaction with democracy. The poll found that 63 percent of those surveyed were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with how democracy functions, including 68 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Democrats.

“The American public is both worried about and dissatisfied with our democracy. It is no surprise that both likely presidential nominees have made this theme a centerpiece of their campaigns,” said , senior advisor to the chancellor and head of the 鶹ý Project on Unity & American Democracy. “We can expect—in this week’s debate and the unfolding campaign—harsh and pointed exchanges on this central issue facing our country.”

In keeping with 鶹ý’s commitment to researching free expression, Unity Polls have looked deeply into people’s perception of free speech and its importance to democracy. The poll used the same wording as a historic survey from 1939, when 86 percent of respondents said they believe it is impossible to have a democracy without free speech, and 7 percent answered that they didn’t know. Today’s results show little change from the survey conducted in 1939, showing about 90 percent holding that opinion. This continuity over 85 years underscores the nation’s enduring conviction that free speech is fundamental to democratic governance. Despite dramatic social, political and technological changes over the decades, this unwavering belief in the necessity of free speech reflects its foundational role in any democracy.

“These results show a consistent and steadfast belief in the essential role free speech plays in American democracy, but there’s more work to do,” said , the founder and executive director of the Future of Free Speech. “Our challenge lies in bridging the divide between the theoretical support for free speech and a real-world tolerance for differing and controversial viewpoints.”

The Unity Poll continued on this theme to explore public opinion about whether free speech should ever be restricted or if certain subjects or speakers should be banned. The majority, 59 percent, expressed that free speech should be unfettered, allowing any subject or speaker at any time. However, a significant partisan divide emerged: 77 percent of MAGA-leaning Republicans and 70 percent of Republicans overall opposed any restrictions, and only 56 percent of Democrats held that view.

The public also shows a more nuanced view of free expression than many may expect. For example, there is more support for allowing a supporter of Palestine to speak on college campuses than for a leader of Hamas. It also appears that the many protests on college campuses this spring did not weaken the public’s commitment to free speech—if anything, these protests strengthened that belief.

Additional takeaways from the survey data include:

  • Who should be allowed to speak on campus:
      • A Leader of Israel allowed to speak (March 2024)
        • Republicans: 65%
        • Democrats: 63%
      • A Leader of Israel allowed to speak (June 2024)
        • Republicans: 73%
        • Democrats: 63%
  • Who should be allowed to speak on campus:
      • A Leader of Hamas allowed to speak (March 2024)
        • Republicans: 29%
        • Democrats: 41%
      • A Leader of Hamas allowed to speak (June 2024)
        • Republicans: 39%
        • Democrats: 41%
  •  Who should be allowed to speak on campus:
      • A Leader of pro-Palestinian group allowed to speak (June 2024)
        • Republicans: 57%
        • Democrats: 67%
  • Who should be allowed to speak on campus:
      • A white supremacist allowed to speak (March 2024)
        • Republicans: 34%
        • Democrats: 29%
      • A white supremacist allowed to speak (June 2024)
        • Republicans: 45%
        • Democrats: 31%
  • Who should be allowed to speak on campus:
      • A scientist who believes that IQ varies by race allowed to speak (June 2024)
        • Republicans: 62%
        • Democrats: 54%
  • Who should be allowed to speak on campus:
      • A supporter of critical race theory allowed to speak (March 2024)
        • Republicans: 58%
        • Democrats: 69%
      • A supporter of critical race theory allowed to speak (June 2024)
        • Republicans: 60%
        • Democrats: 71%
  • Who should be allowed to speak on campus:
      • The head of a group that supports the rights of transgender athletes allowed to speak (March 2024)
        • Republicans: 52%
        • Democrats: 81%
      • The head of a group that supports the rights of transgender athletes allowed to speak (June 2024)
        • Republicans: 61%
        • Democrats: 83%
  • Who should be allowed to speak on campus:
      • A local judge who opposes gay marriage and abortion allowed to speak (March 2024)
        • Republicans: 68%
        • Democrats: 57%
      • A local judge who opposes gay marriage and abortion allowed to speak (June 2024)
        • Republicans: 73%
        • Democrats: 56%

SSRS conducted the 鶹ý Unity Poll on its Opinion Panel Omnibus Platform. Between June 7 and June 10, 2024, 1,031 respondents, ages 18 and older responded across several platforms in Spanish and English. The poll has a margin of error of +/-3.5 at the 95% confidence level.