December 1, 2021
The present study, conducted immediately after the 2020 presidential election in the United States, examined whether Democrats' and Republicans' polarized assessments of election legitimacy increased over time. In a naturalistic survey experiment, people (N = 1,236) were randomly surveyed either during the week following Election Day, with votes cast but the outcome unknown, or during the following week, after President Joseph Biden was widely declared the winner. The design unconfounded the election outcome announcement from the vote itself, allowing more precise testing of predictions derived from cognitive dissonance theory. As predicted, perceived election legitimacy increased among Democrats, from the first to the second week following Election Day, as their expected Biden win was confirmed, whereas perceived election legitimacy decreased among Republicans as their expected President Trump win was disconfirmed. From the first to the second week following Election Day, Republicans reported stronger negative emotions and weaker positive emotions while Democrats reported stronger positive emotions and weaker negative emotions. The polarized perceptions of election legitimacy were correlated with the tendencies to trust and consume polarized media. Consumption of Fox News was associated with lowered perceptions of election legitimacy over time whereas consumption of other outlets was associated with higher perceptions of election legitimacy over time. Discussion centers on the role of the media in the experience of cognitive dissonance and the implications of polarized perceptions of election legitimacy for psychology, political science, and the future of democratic society.