There are two views of who President Biden was excoriating in his speech on Thursday night.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake has walked through what Biden said and the context in which he said it, both on Thursday and last week, when he used the label “semi-fascism” to describe that group’s worldview. But what if we went one step further, trying to assign an actual numeric value to the group Biden is describing? It’s not “half the country” as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and others have insisted. But how much of the country is it?
We’ll start with Biden’s description of the group.
“MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state, to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself. ... They promote authoritarian leaders and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country. They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, brutally attacking law enforcement, not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger at the throat of our democracy, but they look at it as patriots.”
This is a subset of what Biden said, certainly, but, with four categories, it captures the heart of what his speech was focused on: rejection of the 2020 election, embrace of candidates who similarly reject the results, approval of the Capitol riot and a willingness to consider violence as a political tool.
(That Biden later added that the Republican Party was largely beholden to this faction of its base has been used to argue that he was impugning Republicans more broadly. You may evaluate that assertion as you wish.)
Let’s begin with the first category: Those who reject the election results. Before we pull specific numbers from polling, we should set other boundaries. Biden’s comments weren’t specifically about the views of Trump supporters but, instead, of Republicans. So to evaluate how much of the country he’s describing, we’ll look at members of the GOP or, where available, independents who align with Republicans, for our analysis. Are there Republicans who deny the 2020 election results and also hate Trump? Probably! But probably not that many.
This question of how people view the 2020 election is asked regularly. Just last month, for example, YouGov asked the question on behalf of the Economist. They determined that nearly 7 in 10 Republicans believed Biden didn’t legitimately win. So how much of the country is that?
Well, about 20 percent of the country is under age 18, so we will ignore them. How many adults are Republicans? Gallup polls on this regularly. In its most recent iteration of the poll, it found that 28 percent of the country identifies as Republican while 41 percent identify as independent. Of those independents, though, more than a third lean Republican. So 45 percent of American adults are Republican or Republican-leaning independent.
Now we just do some math, applying percentages to the total population pool. The result? About 15 percent of the country (and 19 percent of U.S. adults) are Republicans who think Biden didn’t legitimately win in 2020. About 50 million MAGA Republicans, per Biden.
Except that Biden described MAGA Republicans as holding a variety of positions, not just this one. Is that 15 percent really included in Biden’s descriptor? Or is it only the subset that also believes in the potential use of political violence, etc.? This is hard to measure, since we can’t compare subgroups across polls. So we’ll simply estimate the scale of each of the differentiators Biden listed.
We move on to support for candidates who reject the election results. This is fairly easy to determine, thanks to polling produced this summer by Pew Research Center. Pew asked Americans how they felt about leaders who said that Trump was the legitimate winner in 2020 — and whether they liked such leaders a little or a lot. A third of Republicans said they liked such leaders a lot; another 19 percent said they liked them a little. That’s about 11 percent of the country, then, that likes such leaders.
Looking at the figure for Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, the total is similar: 8 percent of the country (and 11 percent of adults) like such leaders at least a little.
Then we consider Biden’s assessment of how Jan. 6 rioters were viewed. In the YouGov poll mentioned above, respondents were asked if they approved of “Trump supporters taking over the Capitol building” on that say — an admittedly generous way of phrasing it. But more than a quarter of Republicans said they approved at least somewhat, some 6 percent of the population.
The percentage of Republicans holding that position has hovered around 25 percent since the riot occurred.
Now we get into the trickier question: support for the political use of violence. One report from Bright Line Watch in November found limited support for the specific question at hand. Would Republicans endorse the commission of violent felonies to accomplish their political goals? Very few agreed. Asked if they supported political violence if Democrats won in 2024, though, about 10 percent of strong Republicans said they supported the use of violence.
In March, The Washington Post and our partners at ABC News asked Americans the extent to which they viewed violence against the government as potentially justified. About 4 in 10 Republicans (and the same percentage of Republicans and leaning independents) believed that it was. That’s about 9 percent of the population (or 15 percent in the case of GOP/leaners).
In July, a group of researchers from the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis released data including a question that’s been posed in a number of recent polls, asking respondents whether they agreed that because “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast ... we may have to use force to save it.” Asking the question in this way is fraught, since doing so can result in “acquiescence bias” — a tendency for people to overstate the extent to which they agree. In this case, more than half of Republicans said they did — or about 12 percent of the population.
Again, we can’t assume that these percentages all overlap. But we get a consistent picture. Over and over, about 10 percent of the population (plus or minus a few percentage points) expresses the sort of view that Biden articulated: Republican or Republican-leaning and in favor of the positions he associated with “MAGA.”
If one agrees with Biden that this group poses a threat to American democracy, it is reassuring that it constitutes a tenth of the public — and not, as Biden’s detractors had it — half.