Former President Donald Trump has made the “stolen” 2020 election the centerpiece of his post-White House political life. Virtually every statement he sends out invokes the false theme.
The polling shows it has been effective, not just with the crowd that stormed the Capitol on his behalf on Jan. 6, 2021, but with members of the Republican Party almost a year and a half later.
The multiple recounts and audits that confirmed Joe Biden’s win have changed little. With remarkable consistency, a scant one-quarter of Republican voters tell pollsters that Biden won legitimately. That was the view they shared in the spring of 2021, and the fraction remains about the same today.
Roughly 70% of Republicans don’t see Biden as the legitimate winner. Surveys by different pollsters show virtually the same results, with the exception of a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll that dropped it to 61%.
Trump’s insistence that he won the 2020 election became the target of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. In the second of a series of hearings revealing what it has found, the committee showed video of Trump insiders describing how, from the earliest days, the conviction grew that Trump had failed to get enough votes.
Campaign manager Bill Stepien told investigators that by Nov. 5, two days after the election, they saw Biden take the lead. Stepien and other top campaign staff went to Trump.
“We told him, the group that went over there, (we) outlined my belief on the chances for success at this point, and we pegged it at 5%, maybe 10%,” Stepien said.
The situation, Stepien said, was “very, very bleak.”
Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue was one of many officials who tried to counter Trump’s claims of fraud.
“I said something to the effect of, ‘Sir, we’ve done dozens of investigations, hundreds of interviews. The major allegations are not supported by the evidence developed. We’ve looked at Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada. We are doing our job. Much of the info you are getting is false,’” Donoghue told investigators.
Focus groups have shown that Trump supporters weren’t swayed by specific pieces of evidence that rebutted his claims.
Sarah Longwell, executive director of Republicans for the Rule of Law, has conducted regular focus groups with fans of Trump.
“For many of Trump’s voters, the belief that the election was stolen is not a fully formed thought,” Longwell wrote April 18 for The Atlantic. “They know something nefarious occurred, but can’t easily explain how or why. What’s more, they’re mystified and sometimes angry that other people don’t feel the same.”
Trump, Longwell wrote, primed his backers to disbelieve the official results. Months before the vote, he linked mail-in ballots to fraud. On Election Night in many states, mail-in results come later than in-person tabulations. Longwell said that timing raised suspicions.
“A woman from Georgia told me, ‘When I went to bed, Trump was so in the lead and then (I got) up and he’s not in the lead. I mean, that’s crazy,’” Longwell said.
Other interviews with Trump voters found similar attitudes. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement spent time with 56 people who believed that Trump most likely won the election. Professor Talia Stroud said that contrary to popular assumptions, “the people we spoke with were not conspiracists isolated in right-wing echo chambers.”
These voters said they got their news from a variety of outlets, and wound up with multiple theories of how the vote was manipulated. Stroud said the multiple reasons made it harder to change their minds.
“It is one thing to dismiss one misleading claim, but countering many different claims across many different people is much more challenging,” Stroud said. “If I have five reasons that the election could have been fraudulent, and you dismiss one of them, there are four others waiting in the wings.”
Personal experience also reinforced belief. Political scientist Lilliana Mason at Johns Hopkins University told us that maps of the election results show that many Republican voters live in communities that are almost entirely red.
“It seems ludicrous to them that Biden could have won, because they’ve never heard of a single person who voted for him,” Mason said.
Political scientist Alexander Theodoridis, associate director of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst poll, said partisan polarization makes agreement on the election results even harder to achieve.
“Partisans view the other side as morally bankrupt and capable of anything,” Theodoridis said. “This makes it nearly impossible to correct even the most egregious pieces of misinformation.”
Not only does accurate information fail to persuade, Longwell said the effort can backfire.
“A woman from Arizona told me, ‘I think what convinced me more that the election was fixed was how vehemently they have said it wasn’t,’” Longwell said.