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Expand chart
Data: Fox News poll of 1,003 registered voters, Oct.6–8, 2019. Margin of error ±3 percentage points; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

If the 2020 presidential election is close enough to trigger a fight over the results, the public's confidence is so low in key people and institutions that no one is likely to be a trusted referee.

Why it matters: Given how tight the last few elections have been, the likelihood of a contested election is quite real — which means the danger of a fight over the results is real, too.

The big picture: This trust crisis — flagged for us as part of a larger presentation by lobbyist Bruce Mehlman — is based on polling that shows how little confidence the public has in powerful players and institutions, including the ones that would be most likely to be drawn into a contested election.

  • There's a trust chasm over President Trump, with Republicans showing far more confidence in him than Democrats and independents, according to an October Fox News poll.
  • But there's also low trust of the Supreme Court — especially among Democrats and independents — and trust in Congress is rock bottom with everybody.
  • And yes, the news media's trust level is abysmal too, especially with Republicans and independents.

If you break it down by Trump voters vs. people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — which could give us a rough idea of the breakdown between Trump and whoever runs against him in November — there are also wide gaps.

  • The Supreme Court wins a "great deal" of trust with 29% of Trump voters but just 19% of Clinton voters — and the news media wins 27% of Clinton voters but just 7% of Trump voters.

Other surveys have found more evidence of deep distrust in leaders and institutions. The Pew Research Center found a huge partisan divide in trust in politically appointed agency heads (self-described Republicans expressed more confidence in those leaders than Democrats).

  • It also found deep divides over career government employees (Democrats trusted them more than Republicans) and journalists (Democrats trusted them way more than Republicans).
  • The one area of agreement: Barely a third of all Americans across the board trusted elected officials.

What to watch: In this kind of general atmosphere of distrust — along with the aftermath of Trump's impeachment and the near-certainty that 2020 will be plagued with misinformation — it's easy to see how an election could end up in a drawn-out battle.

  • That could happen if Trump contests a narrow defeat or if Trump wins and the Democrats raise questions about voter suppression or other issues.
  • If either scenario happens, Americans' confidence in any of the possible referees would need to be solid for the country to reach a successful resolution — and right now, confidence is a lot less than solid.
  • One sign of concern about a close election: the Supreme Court says it will rule before the election on whether presidential electors have to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state, or whether they have the freedom to switch to someone else.

The bottom line: The crisis is still a long way off — but unless Trump or his opponent can achieve a decisive win, it's coming.

Go deeper:

Russia has already won the fight to undermine U.S. elections

Misinformation haunts 2020 primaries

Go deeper

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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