Opinion Why do some still deny Biden’s 2020 victory? Here’s what the data says.

Although the social media platform removed the first “Stop the Steal" group, others emerged with the most rapid growth seen in the company's history. Photographer: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg (Shawn Thew/Bloomberg)

Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, but more than a year later, many still believe he didn’t. According to a November poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 68 percent of Republicans believe the election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. Only 6 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of independents say the same.

These are not trivial percentages. Tens of millions of Americans believe the "big lie” — that the election was stolen from Trump — even though there’s no evidence of significant voter fraud. Why?

The data points to three related explanations: tribal partisanship, a persistent tendency toward conspiratorial thinking among many Americans, and a sustained misinformation campaign by Trump and his allies.

Losers blame the referees

There’s a simple political pattern in election denial polls. When Republicans win the White House, Democrats are more likely to say the race was rigged. And when Democrats win the White House, Republicans are more likely to cry fraud.

Percentage who doubted that

the vote was counted accurately

After a Republican candidate won

80%

60

40

20

0

2000

2004

2016

After a Democratic candidate won

80%

60

40

20

0

2020

2008

2012

Notes: Question wording a variant of “How

confident are you that the votes across the country

were accurately counted?” for all years except

2000, when Pew asked “Will we have an accurate

count in Florida and other close states?” The 2020

data is from the Voter Study Group, the rest of the

data is from Pew. The 2000 data is from Pew’s

November survey.

 

Sources: Pew Research Center, Voter Study Group.

Percentage who doubted that the vote

was counted accurately

After a Republican candidate won

80%

60

40

20

0

2000

2004

2016

After a Democratic candidate won

80%

60

40

20

0

2008

2020

2012

Notes: Question wording a variant of “How confident are you that

the votes across the country were accurately counted?” for all

years except 2000, when Pew asked “Will we have an accurate

count in Florida and other close states?” The 2020 data is from

the Voter Study Group, the rest of the data is from Pew. The

2000 data is from Pew’s November survey.

 

Sources: Pew Research Center, Voter Study Group.

Percentage who doubted that the vote was counted accurately

After a Republican candidate won

After a Democratic candidate won

80%

60

40

20

0

2000

2004

2016

2008

2020

2012

Notes: Question wording a variant of “How confident are you that the votes across the country were accurately

counted?” for all years except 2000, when Pew asked “Will we have an accurate count in Florida and other close

states?” The 2020 data is from the Voter Study Group, the rest of the data is from Pew. The 2000 data is from Pew’s

November survey.

 

Sources: Pew Research Center, Voter Study Group.

Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami political science professor who specializes in conspiracy theories, explained the pattern to me this way: “Some people don’t like to lose, and they don’t have a good way of coming to grips with it. ... You could think of it in politics as in sports: the winning team rarely complains about the umpires and referees. There’s nothing to complain about when you win — you only have something to complain about if you lose.”

When Trump lost, many Republicans followed this pattern: They alleged fraud rather than admitting that Biden won fairly. And strong Republicans — the people with the greatest attachment to the party — were the most likely to believe Trump’s voter fraud claims.

Nearly a year after the 2020

elections, most Republicans

doubted the validity of the vote

count

Percent who said they were “not too

confident” or “not at all confident” that the

votes were counted accurately in the 2020

elections (September 2021)

Strong Democrat

4%

Weak Democrat

10%

Lean Democrat

12%

Independent

39%

Lean Republican

61%

Weak Republican

71%

Strong Republican

92%

Source: Marquette University Law Poll

Nearly a year after the 2020 elections,

most Republicans doubted the validity

of the vote count

Percent who said they were “not too confident” or “not

at all confident” that the votes were counted accurately

in the 2020 elections (September 2021)

0%

25

50

75

Strong

Democrat

Weak

Democrat

Lean

Democrat

Independent

Lean

Republican

Weak

Republican

Strong

Republican

Source: Marquette University Law Poll

Nearly a year after the 2020 elections, most Republicans doubted the

validity of the vote count

Percent who said they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the votes were counted accurately in the 2020 elections (September 2021)

Strong

Democrat

Weak

Democrat

Lean

Democrat

Independent

Lean

Republican

Weak

Republican

Strong

Republican

0%

25

50

75

100

Source: Marquette University Law Poll

Outcome denial is a bipartisan phenomenon: If Trump had won a second term, many Democrats would be crying foul, just as they did when Republicans won in 2000, 2004 and 2016. But Biden won — and that laid the base for Trump’s own election fraud claims.

Paranoia strikes deep

What’s most striking about election denial: a segment of both parties is prepared to call fraud before they’ve seen the results.

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In October 2020 — before many votes were cast and before all the votes were counted — 45 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats said that, “if my preferred candidate does not win the presidential election” it’s somewhat or very likely that “election fraud will have been involved.”

Why would almost half of the electorate prepare themselves, before seeing any hard data, to deny the results? The answer lies in part in “conspiratorial thinking”

According to Uscinski, some people are naturally prone to believe in conspiracy theories. It’s a way of processing daily life: Where one person sees coincidence or randomness, another sees a secret plot or plan. He told me: “We can think of conspiracy thinking as a lens that people wear with them all the time: everything they see, depending on the thickness of this lens, is going to make sense to them as conspiracies pulled off by people they already don’t like.”

Conspiracy theory researchers place people on a conspiratorial thinking scale by asking if they agree with statements such as, “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places’” or “The people who really ‘run’ the country are not known to the voters.” Nobody is immune to these conspiratorial thinking patterns: Nine in 10Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Odds are, either you — or someone you know, love and respect — believes one.

But the most conspiracy-minded people — shown at the top of this chart — were also the most likely to allege fraud heading into the 2020 election.

People who are prone to

conspiratorial thinking often

doubt election results

Percent who said, if their preferred

candidate loses, fraud was involved

(October 2020)

People who scored higher on

the conspiracy thinking scale

were more likely to allege fraud.

67%

58%

58%

Conspiracy

thinking

scale

42%

35%

31%

29%

24%

Source: Adam Enders and Joe Uscinski, Electoral

Studies, author calculations

People who are prone to conspiratorial

thinking often doubt election results

Percent who said, if their preferred candidate loses,

fraud was involved (October 2020)

People who scored higher on

the conspiracy thinking scale

were more likely to allege fraud.

Most prone

to conspiratorial

thinking

67%

58%

58%

42%

Conspiracy

thinking

scale

35%

31%

29%

Least prone

to conspiratorial

thinking

24%

Source: Adam Enders and Joe Uscinski, Electoral Studies,

author calculations

People who are prone to conspiratorial thinking often doubt election results

Percent who said, if their preferred candidate loses, fraud was involved (October 2020)

Most prone

to conspiratorial

thinking

67%

People who scored

higher on the

conspiracy-thinking

scale were more

likely to allege fraud.

58%

58%

Conspiratorial

thinking

scale

42%

35%

31%

29%

Least prone

to conspiratorial

thinking

24%

Source: Adam Enders and Joe Uscinski, Electoral Studies, author calculations

By October 2020, conspiracy-minded voters in both parties were prepared to deploy their preferred election fraud narratives. Seven in 10 Republicans said “allowing ballots to be sent by mail will increase instances of voter fraud.” Four in 10 Democrats said there was “a conspiracy to stop the U.S. Post Office from processing mail-in ballots.”

The difference between the conspiratorial left and right: the left stood down when Biden won the election, and the conspiratorial right, egged on by Trump, activated.

Trump supercharges the “big lie”

Tribalism and conspiratorial thinking set the stage for the "big lie”. But Trump drove Republican election denial to a new high. For years, he told supporters that elections were “rigged” and that, if he lost, it would be due to fraud. And when Trump says things, his supporters tend to believe him.

For instance, take this Huffington Post poll from 2015: The pollsters told some respondents that Obama supported universal health care and told others that Trump did. And voters changed their opinion to match their leader.

Americans from both parties

tend to support what their

leaders support

August 2015: Barack Obama has praised

the idea of universal health care.Do you

agree or disagree with Obama about

universal health care?

16%

82%

August 2015: Donald Trump has praised

the idea of universal health care.Do you

agree or disagree with Trump about

universal health care?

44%

46%

Source: The Huffington Post/YouGov poll

Americans from both parties tend to

support what their leaders support

August 2015: Barack Obama has praised the idea of

universal health care.Do you agree or disagree with

Obama about universal health care?

16%

82%

August 2015: Donald Trump has praised the idea of

universal health care.Do you agree or disagree with

Trump about universal health care?

44%

46%

Source: The Huffington Post/YouGov poll

Americans from both parties tend to support what their leaders support

August 2015: Barack Obama has praised the idea of universal health care.

Do you agree or disagree with Obama about universal health care?

16%

82%

August 2015: Donald Trump has praised the idea of universal health care.

Do you agree or disagree with Trump about universal health care?

44%

46%

Source: The Huffington Post/YouGov poll

It’s hard to overstate how revealing this “split sample” result is. By 2015, congressional Republicans had spent years arguing that universal health care is socialism and that the Affordable Care Act — a significant health-care expansion and Obama’s most notable legislative achievement — should be repealed. But when pollsters told respondents Trump supported the idea, half of the party climbed onboard. Democrats exhibited the same tendency. Less than half of the Democratic respondents supported universal health care when the idea was attributed to Trump, and eight in 10 supported it when they heard Obama praise it.

At a rally on Oct. 9, 2021, in Des Moines, former president Donald Trump continued to unleash a litany of false and unproven claims of voter fraud in 2020. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Trump’s grasp on the GOP has only grown in the six years since this poll was taken. He won the nomination and then the presidency, telling Republicans, “Only I can fix it.” Now he’s denying the election results, and his party still trusts him. Eight in 10 Republicans — many of whom didn’t doubt Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 — say they’re not confident about the 2020 vote count.

The ‘big lie,’ transformed

The tragedy of the "big lie” is that many Republicans who support basic pillars of democracy — such as fraud-free elections, voting rights and free speech — now doubt the validity of the 2020 result. “Big lie” proponents think they are championing democracy by attacking the vote count.

Most Republicans support key

pillars of democracy

Percent of Republicans who say each is

“important” or “essential” (March 2019)

Fraud−free elections

92%

Equal voting rights

82%

Govt. officials sanctions for misconduct

81%

Peaceful protests tolerated

80%

Constitution limits on executive authority

80%

All votes have equal impact on elections

80%

Free speech protected

78%

Leaders have same understanding of facts

73%

Districts not biased against either party

70%

Government prevents political violence

69%

Source: Bright Line Watch, author calculations

Most Republicans support key pillars of

democracy

Percent of Republicans who say each is “important” or

“essential” (March 2019)

Fraud−free elections

92%

Equal voting rights

82%

Government officials sanctioned for misconduct

81%

Peaceful protests tolerated

80%

Constitution limits on executive authority

80%

All votes have equal impact on elections

80%

Free speech protected

78%

Leaders have common understanding of facts

73%

Districts not biased against either party

70%

Government prevents political violence

69%

Source: Bright Line Watch, author calculations

Most Republicans support key pillars of democracy

Percent of Republicans who say each is “important” or “essential” (March 2019)

0

25

50

75

100

Fraud−free elections

Equal voting rights

Government officials sanctioned for misconduct

Peaceful protests tolerated

Constitution limits on executive authority

All votes have equal impact on elections

Free speech protected

Leaders have common understanding of facts

Districts not biased against either party

Government prevents political violence

0

25

50

75

100

Source: Bright Line Watch, author calculations

Election fraud is no longer a fleeting conspiracy supported by a modest segment of the losing party: it’s part of GOP doctrine. Republican congressional hopefuls across the nation are running on the "big lie”, and state and local legislators have pushed for partisan “audits” of the election results in a number of states.

For some, audits may be more of a test of party purity than a true search for lost votes: Trump didn’t need to find any extra votes to win Texas, but Lone Star State Republicans are still trying to audit the 2020 vote. Others may support an audit out of party loyalty, trust in Trump or a sincere (though incorrect) belief that fraud is rampant.

But, regardless of the reason, the "big lie” has become received wisdom in the Republican Party. Al Gore, John F. Kerry, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton all defused outcome denial by promptly conceding to their opponent. Trump did the opposite: and as a result, the reach and durability of the "big lie” has only grown.

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