The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After seven months of debunking, the false belief that Biden won because of fraud hasn’t budged

Supporters of Donald Trump gather outside the Maryland State House in Annapolis on Nov. 7 to protest Joe Biden's election victory. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Speaking to a large crowd of supporters outside the White House on Jan. 6, President Donald Trump warned that he was about to bore them.

“I’m going to read you pages” of purported evidence of con in the 2020 election, Trump said. “I hope you don’t get bored listening to it. Promise? … Don’t get bored, don’t get angry at me because you’re going to get bored because it’s so much.”

It took a few minutes to get to that “evidence,” given that Trump wanted to riff on how bad the media was and how bad Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) was. But soon enough, he made his case.

For example, that “you had 205,000 more ballots than you had voters” in Pennsylvania — a claim that had already been debunked and was described by a state official as “obvious misinformation.” He made other untrue or debunked claims about Pennsylvania, claims that were also quickly dismantled. He made claims about Wisconsin that had been taken apart a month earlier. He claimed a broken pipe in Atlanta was something suspicious; if so, the suspicion should be about the quality of plumbing and not about vote-counting.

Despite Trump’s insistence that the evidence of fraud was overwhelming, it was not. In fact, it was all but nonexistent, and what evidence one might have pointed to was not credible. In the months since, other theories of fraud have emerged and faded, with no such claim — including myriad new assertions from Trump — withstanding any extended scrutiny.

One might assume, then, that the burst of speculation that the election had somehow been stolen might fade over time. That Americans predisposed to assume that President Biden had taken office only after a massive effort to steal the vote would consider the collapse of every effort to prove that point as evidence that perhaps that wasn’t what happened.

That isn’t what has happened.

On Monday, Monmouth University released polling showing about a third of Americans think Biden won only because of voter fraud — the same fraction of the electorate that held that view in Monmouth’s polling in March, in January and in November.

Despite the lack of credible evidence for the claim and the amount of time that has passed during which such evidence could have emerged, Americans are as likely to ascribe Biden’s victory to unfounded claims of fraud as they were seven months ago.

That’s driven by Republicans, as you might expect. Six in 10 Republicans think Biden won only because of fraud. That number is down from January, but Monmouth’s pollsters explain the apparent drop is largely a function of more respondents identifying themselves as Republican-leaning independents. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, about two-thirds have consistently said they think Biden won only because of fraud.

What’s more, just shy of a third of Republicans say they will never accept the results of the election, while just under a quarter say it’s time to move on from the issue.

That provides a robust base of support for such efforts as the “audit” of the election in Arizona, an effort approved by the Republican legislature and handed over to a firm led by a guy who has publicly endorsed debunked fraud conspiracy theories. More than half of Republicans say such “audits” are legitimate efforts to find the fraud they assume exists.

After all, two-thirds of Republicans told Monmouth they consider voter fraud a “major problem,” which it objectively is not.

If you think fraud is a problem in general and fraud is why Biden won, why wouldn’t you see efforts to uncover that fraud as legitimate?

A pattern has emerged in Republican politics over the past several years, a three-part system by which to generate a cloud of uncertainty about certain things. One component is to suggest a failure to treat something unserious as serious is a reflection of an unwillingness to debate, that the party considering the unserious thing as unserious is somehow afraid to confront it. Another is cherry-picking from huge pools of information, using isolated and usually misconstrued claims to construct alternative narratives. The third is the existence of a sympathetic media and social universe that collectively agrees the unserious and unproven thing is, in fact, both proven and serious.

So valid arguments that hunts for fraud are equivalent to hunts for left-​handed screwdrivers are dismissed as showing fear about the debate. The lack of credible evidence is countered with specious evidence that the presenter views as credible — in part because she has a galaxy of right-wing media figures and a former president agreeing with her position.

The result is a stable bubble of falsehood, one that shifts its shape over time but otherwise remains stable. A third of the country believed there was fraud right after the election, a third believed that at the time of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, a third believed it two months into Biden’s presidency, a third believes it now. As long as there’s a market for the argument, which there seemingly always will be, a third of Americans may believe this obviously false thing forever.