The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The losers always doubt election results. That reached a dangerous level in 2020.

In the weeks after the election, only 34 percent of Trump voters said they accepted Biden’s win.

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they try to storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

According to data from the Monmouth University Polling Institute, 63 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independents continue to believe that President Biden won the office through voter fraud. That remarkable figure helps to explain why Republicans in at least 14 states have passed laws making it harder to vote, and why Senate Republicans this week blocked the For the People Act, which would have offset some of those state-level efforts.

A new report from our organization, the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, helps to clarify just how unusual the 2020 election was, in terms of sowing distrust among voters about the American election system — especially on the right. In the weeks before the election, there was very little difference in the confidence of Democrats and Republicans that their votes would be miscounted. In late October, according to our weekly survey of some 6,000 voters (a nationally representative sample), 62 percent of supporters of President Donald Trump and 63 percent of Biden supporters said they were somewhat or very confident that the election would be conducted fairly. But by the week after the election, a chasm had opened — with 93 percent of Biden supporters saying they were confident of fairness, compared with just 29 percent of Trump supporters. A similar post-election shift occurred around these voters' perceptions of the accuracy of vote counts and the prevalence of voter fraud.

Trump’s behavior obviously contributed to this situation. He not only failed to concede that he lost but also led a conspiracy-filled campaign to discredit the results of the election.

To be sure, confidence in the results of elections is typically polarized, with partisans of the losing candidates spotting unfairness. In a separate survey, however, conducted in partnership with YouGov, we found that polarization on the question of fairness of elections was markedly more intense in 2020 than in 2016. In that survey, which included interviews with some 4,900 people from Nov. 13 to Dec. 7, 2020, (again, a nationally representative sample), we found that fully 35 percent of Trump voters said that they were “not at all confident” that their votes had been counted accurately. Many of the same panelists in that survey had taken part in a similar poll after the 2016 election; after that election, only 8 percent of Hillary Clinton voters said they were not at all confident about the vote-counting — more than a fourfold difference.

The U.S. shows all the signs of a country spiraling toward political violence

Polling from Gallup lends weight to the argument that rejection of the election’s winner was far higher this time around. In 2016, more than 8 in 10 Americans said they would accept the elected candidate as legitimate. That includes 76 percent of Hillary Clinton voters who said they would accept Trump as their president.

Because of methodological differences, we cannot directly compare results from different polls. But our study found, in contrast, a profound rejection of Biden among Republicans. According to our YouGov-affiliated survey, in the weeks after the election, only 70 percent of all respondents said they accepted Biden as their president. That figure was driven down by Trump supporters, of whom only 34 percent said they accepted Biden’s legitimacy.

Republican rhetoric is getting more extreme because that’s what the base demands

Worse, high levels of distrust among Republicans also trickled over into the endorsement of dubious actions. In that same YouGov survey fielded in November 2020, we found that 86 percent of Republicans thought it appropriate for Trump to file lawsuits challenging the election’s results, and 54 percent said it would be appropriate if Trump never conceded the election. An astonishing 46 percent of Republican respondents said it would be appropriate for Republican state legislators to assign electoral votes to Trump in states won by Biden — a radical violation of American electoral norms.

All of this data was collected before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. In retrospect, the data speaks to the prevalence of the attitudes that motivated the events of that day. Some people thought the Capitol insurrection might be a wake-up call, leading conservative elites to tamp down conspiratorial thinking in the GOP ranks. But so far very little of that has happened — and it has had scant effect on rank-and-file attitudes.

Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy — and trust in those systems and results is critical. While heated elections inevitably produce skepticism and distrust among the supporters of losing candidates, the acceptance of that loss is usually aided by the conciliatory words and actions of losing parties. The problems sowed by Trump and significant portions of the Republican Party are still with us. Based on the data in this new report, there is every reason to believe we will be dealing with the fallout for the foreseeable future.