The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conspiracy theories are common on the right — but few Republicans adhere to all of them

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) sports a “Trump Won” mask at the Capitol on the first day of the new congressional session in January. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The question posed by a colleague at The Post was this: How many Republicans not only believe that the 2020 election was stolen, but also reject coronavirus vaccines, accept the false claims of the extremist QAnon ideology and deny the reality of climate change? Which is to say, we know that there are a slew of beliefs held by Republicans more than Americans on the whole, but how many Republicans believe all of those things?

This is not a trivial question to answer. For one thing, there’s an obvious qualitative difference between something like rejecting coronavirus vaccines and believing the wilder aspects of QAnon. For another, this requires an apples-to-apples comparison within one data set. You can’t just say that 30 percent of Republicans believe in Theory A, according to Poll X, and 40 percent adhere to Theory B, according to Poll Y, and then figure out where A and B overlap. It’s like trying to figure out who would win the World Cup: Brazil’s national team from 1972 or Italy’s from 1996. (If you are deeply involved in international soccer and have feedback about my choices of teams for this example, please feel free to email me your complaints.) You get the point.

Happily, YouGov just completed a poll for the Economist in which it covered most of these subjects. Kathy Frankovic, a contractor for YouGov, generously shared breakdowns of these views and their overlap, allowing us to generate an estimate of how many Republicans plum the deepest depths of the rabbit hole.

We’ll start with an overview of the six conspiracy theories included in the YouGov poll. On one, whether the 1969 moon landing was faked, Republican views mirrored Americans overall, with only about 1 in 8 thinking that was the case. (Interestingly, Frankovic noted, younger respondents were more likely than older ones to think this is true.)

In three others, Republicans were slightly more likely than Americans overall to believe the conspiracy theory. Republicans were a bit more likely to say that climate change wasn’t happening (it is), that vaccines cause autism (they don’t) and that the government is using vaccines to microchip people (it isn’t). While the difference between Republicans and Americans overall was subtle on these questions, it was still the case that, on the two vaccine questions, more than a quarter of Republicans agreed. Nearly a third of Republicans claimed to believe that coronavirus vaccines include a microchip.

We can use that as an opportunity to point out that there is a real difference between actually believing a thing and saying you believe a thing. There are certainly reasons that someone might latch onto a conspiracy theory presented by a pollster, particularly on a politically loaded topic. Nonetheless, we will take these Republicans at their word.

On two issues, Republicans were far more likely to express belief in the conspiracy theory. The first is that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2020 election, which is not only not true, but obviously not true. The other is that the danger posed by the coronavirus was exaggerated for political reasons. Given that the Trump White House itself projected more than 100,000 deaths in a worst-case scenario, this one seems pretty obviously false, too.

So what does the overlap look like? About 1 in 10 Republicans say they believe that the election was stolen and the three false coronavirus-related conspiracy theories: that the threat was exaggerated, that vaccines lead to autism and that covid vaccines include a microchip. One in 10, a bit more than the percentage of the population overall (which, of course, includes those Republicans).

That’s not really the question we were trying to ask, of course. YouGov also asked whether Republicans would get a coronavirus vaccine, with about 3 in 10 saying they would not. That was 11 points higher than Americans overall.

We can use this, though, to figure out the overlap with climate change and the voter-fraud claim. So, for example, 14 percent of Republicans both won’t get a coronavirus vaccine and think climate change isn’t happening. Twice as many think that rampant fraud happened and say they won’t get a vaccine. But only 4 percent, about 1 in 20, said that they wouldn’t get vaccinated, that the election was stolen and that the climate isn’t changing.

We can look at this another way. About a quarter of Republicans think that rampant fraud occurred and won’t get vaccinated but don’t think climate change is fake. About 1 in 10 deny the reality of climate change and won’t get vaccinated but don’t think that the 2020 election was stolen. So that’s … good?

What’s interesting about this is the selectiveness of the offered conspiracy theories. Despite the broad embrace of things like the casting of millions of illegal votes — for which there is no more good evidence than there is for a microchip in the coronavirus vaccines — other things are, for most people (Republican or not), simply not credible. What is it that relegates belief in the repeatedly debunked idea that vaccines are linked to autism that causes most Republicans to reject it, but allows them to embrace the also repeatedly debunked theory of rampant fraud?

I mean, there is the former president constantly making the latter claim and a galaxy of hangers-on seeking approval by echoing it. Maybe that plays some role.