What to Watch: ASD at GMF Experts Weigh in on the 2024 US Presidential Primaries

January 11, 2024
This year’s US presidential primaries will determine who will lead the country come January 2025 amid growing autocratic threats to American democracy. Experts from the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund are monitoring and analyzing these threats which are arising from emerging technology to artificial intelligence, and impacting election officials, infrastructure, and more. Here is what they are watching as the primary season kicks off:

Rachael Dean Wilson, ASD co-managing director: “The 2024 US presidential race will be the ‘supercharged election’. In 2020 and 2022, we weathered threats to American democracy including false election narratives, political violence, the vilification of election workers, and attempted cyber intrusions into US election infrastructure. In this electoral cycle, major advances in generative artificial intelligence will supercharge bad actors’ ability to launch sophisticated cyberattacks and flood platforms with false information that looks real. And it’s not just the tools that are amped: More foreign actors are attempting to interfere in US elections, increasingly deciding the risk is worth the geopolitical reward of a distracted and diminished United States. Elected officials, community leaders, and voters must navigate this supercharged environment by carefully weighing and assessing claims made before sharing information.”

David Salvo, ASD co-managing director: “Technical issues with a mobile voting application delayed the results of the 2020 Democratic Party’s Iowa caucuses and caused much controversy—nearly a year before election denialism took off in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. In 2024, election denialism is at the center of US politics, not just a conspiracy theory on the fringes. Accordingly, I’ll be paying close attention to how smoothly the primaries run and whether even the slightest issue in election administration adds fuel to the fire of the false narrative that US elections can’t be trusted. Let’s remember that the hardworking, patriotic US citizens who run elections are not infallible, but they do excellent work and have plenty of procedures in place to ensure that votes are ultimately tabulated and reported accurately.”

David Levine, senior elections integrity fellow: “It is increasingly clear which foreign and domestic actors are likely to try and interfere in the 2024 presidential election. Less obvious is how they will try to do so and how well-prepared the United States is to respond. The vast majority of US election officials continue to protect the election process through their selfless, tireless efforts, but I am concerned that they have not received enough support. Congress and many states do not provide adequate funding to help election workers secure their infrastructure against malign actors’ attacks. Social media companies are pulling back from their previous efforts to police online election falsehoods. Those who threaten, abuse, and harass election officials are far too often not held accountable for their actions, contributing to significant turnover for election administrators and concerns of a brain drain impacting election workers administering the 2024 presidential election. With disinformation, polarization, and divisiveness increasingly leading Americans to support democratic norms only when it appears politically convenient to do so, the big question is whether enough of them will step forward to ensure the 2024 election is successfully administered and upheld in the face of threats from at home and abroad. The promise of democracy has helped the United States overcome significant challenges before and I hope it will do so again in 2024.”

Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow for emerging technologies: “The rise of generative artificial intelligence is transforming the information space and with that, the US political sphere. Elections in late 2023 from Slovakia to Argentina featured confusing deepfakes that have been at times difficult to assess. And in the United States, candidates have experimented with AI technologies for political ads and to reach constituents. As the 2024 election season comes into full swing, how AI-generated audio, image, and video disrupt the information environment in elections around the world will give a first glimpse at the true impact of the risks for democracy. And, behind the scenes, will candidates also lean into artificial intelligence to reach and profile voters like a Cambridge Analytica 2.0? At the same time, necessity is the mother of invention, and 2024 may be the year that we see massive strides in the implementation and adoption of content authenticity technologies in our information environment. These democracy-affirming technologies can help build trust and transparency. The year 2024 also presents a narrow window of opportunity for the frenzy to turn into AI legislation. Whether Congress will take a stab at regulating AI or leave it in the hands of the executive branch will impact how the United States engages this issue on the world stage.”

Bret Schafer, senior fellow: “On the information front, many observers will likely be focused on the role that artificial intelligence will play in the production and dissemination of false and misleading narratives. While it’s almost a certainty that AI-generated content will play a role in election-related manipulation campaigns this cycle, I’m not certain that it will fundamentally change the threat environment. I’m more interested to watch how the social media companies will operate with trimmed down or gutted trust and safety and election teams in a political environment in which moderation decisions will carry huge risks—for those companies and the individuals tasked with making those decisions. I worry that when faced with a critical decision—not the removal of fakes or false information, but things such as threats to election officials—that many companies will either not have the resources, the political will, or even the desire to act quickly or at all. This is one time when I hope very much to be proved wrong.”

Vassilis Ntousas, senior manager for Europe and fellow: “For most Europeans, who are still heavily reliant on US security guarantees and attached to the idea and practices of a strong transatlantic partnership, the prospect of Donald Trump’s potential return to the presidency is increasingly viewed with wariness, if not outright dread. This is why Brussels and the vast majority of European capitals will be intently observing the run-up to the next US election, including all the twists and turns, the zig-zag trajectory leading to November. The upcoming presidential primaries, particularly within the Republican Party, will be closely monitored. The destabilizing turbulence of the Trump years proved that the nomination process—and who ultimately has a shot at winning in November—is of existential significance for Europe.”

Nathan Kohlenberg, research analyst: “In the wake of election denialism and the January 6 insurrection, trust in media and other key institutions of democracy have slipped to new lows. In this fragmented information ecosystem, malign actors in and outside the United States are likely to see many opportunities to promote false narratives aimed at benefiting one side or the other, and to denigrate and weaken US democracy generally. New communications platforms and technologies, including TikTok and generative artificial intelligence, are likely to amplify this threat. And the current war in the Middle East creates new fractures within the electorate, and new geopolitical aspirations for a wide range of foreign governments, including those in Israel, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Syria, Yemen, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the safeguards that prevent actual vote manipulation, whether by government, non-government, or foreign actors remain strong. US voters have become accustomed in recent years to contentious elections where even the most basic facts seem up for debate, and while this state of affairs has brought difficult challenges, Americans have also demonstrated real resilience.”

Etienne Soula, research analyst: “Looking at the information space, the primaries will be a dry run of sorts before the big event in November. The various candidates’ campaigns will likely use many of the same communication tools and tactics for the primaries and for the general election, especially where those tools and tactics prove successful. In that respect, it will be important to look out for information manipulation attempts, especially those sponsored by authoritarian states, as those will likely be a harbinger of things to come in November. And it is likely that those attempts will be facilitated by the popularity of problematic platforms, such as Chinese-owned TikTok or the now-actively unmoderated X, as well as by the proliferation of AI-enabled applications that democratize the creation of ever-more convincing fabricated images, audio clips, and videos.”

Laura Thornton, GMF senior vice president of democracy: “With the 2024 US primaries likely yielding another Biden-Trump contest, I am looking at how the general election fits into the broader global context since 40% of the world’s population will vote this year. For the United States, I’m interested in the rise of third-party candidates who, in this peculiar electoral college system and with tightly contested races, could tilt the scales to favor one of the main party’s candidates, likely Trump. Two factors will possibly determine the next US president: the candidate that the No Labels movement selects and the states that allow that candidate on the ballot. Americans must also be vigilant about the role of foreign actors in the campaign. Arguably, the Kremlin has never had more incentive to influence the race, with Biden and the Democrats supportive of aiding Ukraine and Trump and some Republicans pledging not only to withdraw support from Ukraine but also to abandon NATO altogether. It is a relatively small investment for Russian President Vladimir Putin to sponsor information operations, cyber attacks, and financial support in US elections given the potential outcome for his war effort. I will be looking at disinformation campaigns in particular, including the use of artificial intelligence, designed to portray candidates in a negative light and sow chaos and distrust in the election process and in election officials that may fuel violent actors. Globally, I am interested in how well far-right populists perform on the ballot and whether the United States continues on the trajectory of rising autocracy or Americans will see victories akin to that in the Polish elections, where voters chose liberal democracy. I will be watching how far-right candidates mimic and learn from each other across borders and aid one another’s campaigns in the information space.”

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.