In high-profile statewide races in Georgia, Ohio and Arizona, leading Republican candidates have embraced the false claim that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen, often reversing their previous statements to do so. Despite a complete lack of evidence for the claim, this belief has become widespread among Republican voters and shows no sign of diminishing.
Believing that elections are rigged reduces trust in democracy and democratic norms, research finds. While there’s nothing new about partisans believing that elections have been stolen, it is new to have so many Americans — including prominent political figures — accept this belief.
Many scholars have discussed the political effects of these beliefs. Fewer have examined how embracing one set of conspiracy theories affects belief in others. My research suggests that the fracturing of consensus on U.S. political facts could be leading Americans to a loss in a shared understanding of reality more generally.
Conspiracy thinking as a belief system
Political scientists commonly talk about conspiracy beliefs as arising from what’s called “motivated reasoning”: People want something to be true, so they seek out evidence that it is and avoid evidence that would contradict that belief. But believing in conspiracies without evidence is also a pattern of thinking. Recent research finds that this habit can be exacerbated by social media use.
So if beliefs about the 2020 election ease Americans into the habit, does it make them more likely to embrace other false beliefs? My research team wanted to test the theory that if you believe that Donald Trump really won the 2020 U.S. presidential election, you should be more likely to believe just about anything.
To explore this, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s FDU Poll ran a survey of 1,021 U.S. residents from April 24 to 29. The probability-based survey reached respondents mostly via live callers, with some respondents answering via text-to-Web; results were weighted to population characteristics.
The poll asked about a series of conspiracy theories, ranging from those that could conceivably be true (the novel coronavirus was created in a lab) to the absurd (the Earth is flat). Each respondent was randomly assigned to one of two groups. Half the respondents were first asked whether Trump was the actual winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The other half were asked about one of the other conspiracy theories, randomly determined, first.
Asking about 2020 makes Republicans more likely to believe anything
If believing the 2020 election was stolen makes people more likely to hold other questionable beliefs, then starting with that question should make them more likely to say that other conspiracy theories are true. Seventy-two percent of Republicans, and 40 percent of Americans overall, say that it’s “somewhat” or “very” likely that Trump really won the 2020 presidential election. Being asked about it led them to be more likely to endorse other false beliefs.
This random assignment has a big impact on whether Republicans think other far-fetched beliefs are plausible (at least “somewhat” likely). For people who are asked the questions — about Bigfoot, the flat Earth and vaccines causing autism — in random order, there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats. Both say, on average, that about 0.6 of the three are plausible.
However, when we ask about the 2020 election first, nothing happens to Democrats, but Republicans now say that 0.9 of the beliefs are plausible. Put another way, when we ask about 2020 first, the number of Republicans who say that none of the other beliefs are plausible drops from 53 percent to 42 percent, while the number saying that all three are plausible rises from 1 percent to 8 percent.
For instance, when we started by asking first about one of the other questionable beliefs, only 17 percent of Republicans said that it’s “somewhat” or “very” likely that Bigfoot is real. But in the group asked first about whether Trump won the 2020 election, 23 percent of Republicans said Bigfoot is likely to be real. In general, Republicans were more likely to endorse the idea that childhood vaccines cause autism — perhaps because of coronavirus vaccine skepticism — but again, asking about the 2020 election first led Republicans to be more likely to say it was likely.
For Democrats, the order of the questions didn’t change those proportions; no matter how the question was asked, about 20 percent of Democrats said Bigfoot is somewhat or very likely to be real, while 10 percent say it’s somewhat or very likely that the Earth is flat.
Clearly, the order mattered. It wasn’t just that people credulous about one thing were also credulous about another. Being first asked about the 2020 election increased Republican respondents’ openness to the possibility that other conspiracy theories might be true.
Nor are people simply trying to be consistent, saying that other false beliefs are plausible because they said that 2020 was likely stolen. Asking about the 2020 election puts the rest of the questions in a partisan political context, in which saying that unsupported claims are plausible is part of a political identity. As a result, asking about 2020 first makes even Republicans who believe Biden won more likely to endorse other beliefs.
It’s not one belief that’s contagious, but the link between partisanship and questioning reality. Once your partisan identity includes the belief that experts don’t know anything, that dubious online sources are valid, that the news media could be lying to you, even ridiculous things are more likely to be true. This also helps explain why we sometimes see the opposite effect — a reduction in belief in conspiracies — among Democrats when they’re asked about 2020 first.
Of course, the effect sizes we’re seeing don’t mean that 2020 is pushing most Republicans to believe in Bigfoot, and on the whole Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to endorse these absurd beliefs. But putting the questions in a partisan context is making Republicans significantly more likely to say that Bigfoot is plausible. Given how ridiculous these beliefs are, that’s notable.
Conspiracy beliefs don’t stay in one place
The news isn’t all bad. Separately, the study randomly told half of respondents that scientists and experts had said that these beliefs were false. These respondents were slightly less likely to say they believed in things like a flat Earth. But this could be because some people respond to cues about what they think the interviewer wants to hear.
Our results suggest that once people have settled into a partisan conspiratorial mind-set, they may begin to see conspiracy theories elsewhere. It’s possible that the widespread belief in 2020 election fraud could result, in part, from past false beliefs like the coronavirus isn’t real or that the Sandy Hook shooting was faked.
Americans are living through the effects of a breakdown in shared belief about political reality. Breakdown in consensus over the basics of how the world works could be even worse.
Dan Cassino (@DanCassino) is a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University whose most recent book, with Yasemin Besen-Cassino, is “Gender Threat: American Masculinity in the Face of Change” (Stanford University Press, 2021).