But none of this is unique to 2020. Many members of the losing party have questioned the outcome of earlier elections, too. That’s what my research team found after the 2012 election.
Partisans think previous elections were stolen, too
In December 2012, after President Barack Obama’s reelection, my research team at Fairleigh Dickinson University conducted a national random-digit-dial telephone poll of 814 registered voters asking Americans whether various conspiracy theories were plausible — for instance, whether President George W. Bush knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in advance, whether Obama might have been born in Kenya or whether the 2004 and 2012 presidential elections could have been stolen. Overall, 23 percent (with a 3.4-point margin of error) said that it was “probably true” that Bush supporters won the 2004 election through fraud in Ohio. Twenty percent said the same about Obama supporters committing significant voter fraud in 2012.
As in this year’s surveys, these beliefs were linked closely with partisanship. Thirty-seven percent of Democrats said that Bush stole Ohio in 2004, and 36 percent of Republicans said the same about the 2012 election. Single-digit percentages of partisans said that their own party stole the election they won. What’s more, fully 20 percent or more of respondents said they were unsure whether one or both elections had been stolen.
About 30 percent of Republicans said they were sure the 2012 election was legitimate — about the same as the percent who say they’re confident about this year’s election. What’s new seems to be Republicans’ shift from not being sure either way to being sure about fraud.
The 2012 election was already marred by the birther smear against Obama, and there were allegations about fraud in 2004, but this partisan difference also shows up in earlier elections that weren’t terribly controversial. There were no serious allegations of fraud in the 1996 matchup between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, but in data from the American National Election Studies, 23 percent of Americans said that the election was “unfair,” including a much greater number of Republicans than Democrats.
It’s not just lack of knowledge
To some extent, these responses are driven by ignorance. In general, we found that higher levels of political knowledge correlate with a lower likelihood of believing conspiracy theories are about “probably true.” The less people know about politics, the more plausible anything seems.
If higher levels of political knowledge are correlated with a lower likelihood of false beliefs, then it should be possible to educate citizens enough to eliminate conspiracy theories. Simply give people good information and false beliefs will go away.
But more information isn’t likely to change determined partisans’ minds. Political psychology research has revealed a phenomenon known as “motivated reasoning,” in which people process information not to reach an objectively correct conclusion, but to bolster what they already believe. They absorb and retain information that supports those beliefs, while avoiding, misremembering or simply forgetting contrary evidence. What’s more, some researchers have recently offered what’s called the “hot cognition hypothesis,” theorizing that when we care deeply about something, motivated reasoning is endemic to information processing — we can’t turn it off even if we want to.
Partisans may well be motivated to believe that their candidate won the election, leading them to seek out information confirming that belief while discounting disconsonant information. Under these conditions, more knowledge won’t change their minds — and may even backfire. After all, who knows more about the events of 9/11 than a 9/11 truther, even if their interpretation of that information may be completely false?
Sometimes, more knowledge is actually a bad thing
Although more political knowledge generally correlates with less likelihood of saying that a political conspiracy theory is true, there is an exception: Republicans with more political knowledge were significantly more likely to believe that Democrats stole the 2012 election. Controlling for factors like education and race, among Republicans who answered all four political knowledge questions incorrectly, only 30 percent said Obama had stolen the 2012 election. Among those who answered all four political knowledge questions correctly, 40 percent did.
Of course, for many people, including birther Donald Trump, the election of the first Black president was also charged, so 2012 may have been a preview of this year’s attitudes, reflecting our new and highly polarized electorate. But what’s striking is the consistency of the belief, going back to 1996, an election that had no such shadow over it.
Motivated reasoning has been around as long as partisan politics, and surely before. What’s new is that a large proportion of Republicans say they’re convinced of fraud. Why did the proportion increase?
Of course, we can’t be certain without more research. But one difference from the past is the self-enclosed loop of partisan news. Social media sites, conservative radio, professional conspiracy theorists and even cable news outlets report nonstop on allegations of fraud and corruption in the election to a partisan audience. That may be convincing formerly uncertain voters that this election was stolen.
Dan Cassino (@dancassino) is a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J., and executive director of the FDU Poll.