The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP’s ‘stolen-election’ fever has dropped, for now

Bus driver Randy Reynolds smokes as he walks past a Trump-themed bus at the home of Angela Rubino in Rome, Ga., in May. Rubino is a conspiracy theory believer who stands with Republicans who espouse the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
5 min

In some ways, the 2022 election seemed set up for a repeat of the aftermath of the 2020 election. A flood of GOP-aligned but lower-quality polls suggested the party was in line for big gains, shaping the right’s expectations of a red wave. It was somewhat reminiscent of the “red mirage” that showed Donald Trump ahead early on election night 2020, and which he later baselessly exploited to claim a stolen election.

Then the red wave proved itself to be a mirage, leaving Republicans to search for explanations for another disappointing election.

Thus far, though, the reaction hasn’t been anything on the order of the 2020 “stolen election” fever that gripped the GOP. And given what transpired after 2020, it’s worth asking why.

First, let’s run down what the data shows:

  • A recent poll from Quinnipiac University shows 30 percent of Republicans say the results of the 2022 election were not legitimate. That compares to 70 percent of Republicans who agreed with Trump’s false claim that President-elect Joe Biden’s 2020 win was illegitimate. (That number held strong into the 2022 election year.)
  • A poll from the Marquette University law school shows 16 percent of Republicans say they’re “not at all confident” that the 2022 votes were accurately cast and counted. That compares to 36 percent in the same poll who said the same about the 2020 election results.
  • The Pew Research Center also has a series of applicable findings on this question. Its poll last week showed 53 percent of Republicans say the 2022 election was run at least “somewhat well,” compared to just 21 percent who said the same after the 2020 election.

All of these numbers come with big caveats. First: A sizable portion of the GOP baselessly doubts the accuracy of our elections. The Pew poll, for instance, shows 58 percent of Republicans remain “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that 2022 mail ballots were counted as voters intended.

But even that number is way down from 2020, and the ranks of the most strident critics — those who say they’re “not at all confident” that mail ballots were accurately counted — have dropped by about half, to 25 percent.

Indeed, most of these 2022 numbers are closer to where Republicans were in Pew’s 2018 post-election survey than to its 2020 version, suggesting a return to something closer to the mean — at least for now.

There are likely a few reasons for this.

The first is that the national push by election-denier candidates really hasn’t materialized. Kari Lake is fighting her loss in Arizona, but the 2020 election deniers who ran this year have largely conceded. And even when they haven’t, they haven’t really pressed the issue. That could be in part because their losses were by wider margins than the ones that were decisive in 2020, or because they didn’t have the same tools at their disposal to try overturning their races (none have Trump’s platform, for example, or procedures like the electoral college process to exploit) — or perhaps because the GOP may have prevailed upon its candidates to not go down that road. But it means there are fewer people whipping their voters into a frenzy over nothing.

To the extent people are attempting to do that, it’s mostly Lake and Trump lobbing bombs on his social media platform. Lake has a big following in MAGA circles, but the significance of the Arizona governor’s race just doesn’t rank as high for your casual political follower as a presidential race or even a Senate race that decides which party wins the majority. And Trump not only lacks the bully pulpit of the presidency — he’s not even on Twitter, and he doesn’t seem to have the energy or the desire to wield his just-launched 2024 presidential campaign on this front.

Trump called a protest. No one showed. Why GOP efforts to cry foul fizzled this time.

Undoubtedly a big reason for the shift is the willingness of certain elements of conservative media to entertain a stolen-election crusade. After the 2020 election, Fox News welcomed a series of Trump-aligned guests who lodged wild conspiracy theories about voter fraud, voting machines and “vote dumps.” Not only has platforming these wild claims become a legal liability, but there’s evidence that the likes of Rupert Murdoch would prefer to turn the page on Trump and all he has wrought for the conservative movement.

But just because the fever has broken a bit doesn’t mean the illness has been cured. The dynamics that drove the party’s temperature up after the 2020 election could just as easily return if Trump reasserts his grip on the party and there’s an actual presidential election on the line.

We’ve seen over and over again that, however much GOP officials’ better judgment suggests they should distance themselves from Trump, they’re plenty willing to toe his line when their careers are at stake. They mostly didn’t repeat his exact false 2020 voter-fraud claims, but they declined to correct them and lodged their own watered-down versions, which fed baseless distrust of our election system and what became the Jan. 6 insurrection.

For now, though, what seems clear is that a bunch of Republicans who decided the 2020 election was illegitimate aren’t saying the same of the 2022 election — even though the results were also disappointing and, for many, surprising. The GOP happened to underperform in many of the most important races, which could have been fodder for the stolen-election crowd to misconstrue it as some grand conspiracy.

But the reason for the underperformance is the same as it was for the stolen-election fever: Trump, who fed the GOP bad candidates in 2022 just as he fed it the “big lie” in 2020. And the biggest election deniers arguably performed worst of all.

Perhaps the party’s appetite for all of that has, at least momentarily, subsided.