Was Election Denial Just a Passing Threat?

In the months before the midterm elections, a reporter for Time magazine asked Mark Finchem, the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Arizona, why he was so convinced that Donald Trump had won the state in 2020 despite all evidence to the contrary.

“It strains credibility,” Finchem responded. “Isn’t it interesting that I can’t find anyone who will admit that they voted for Joe Biden?”

It was as succinct an explanation as any for why so many Americans believed the 2020 election had been stolen. Republicans, especially those living in deep-red areas, knew so few Democrats that it beggared their imagination that anyone, as Finchem put it, would vote for one.

Now, two political scientists have put some rigor behind this idea. The more that voters were surrounded by other Republicans, Nicholas Clark and Rolfe Daus Peterson of Susquehanna University report in a forthcoming research paper, the more likely that they were to say that the 2020 election had been stolen, controlling for other factors.

Using survey data collected through the Voter Study Group, a nonpartisan research project, Clark and Peterson tested two alternate hypotheses:

  • The more rural voters were, the more likely they were to say that the 2020 election had been stolen.

  • The more Republican their congressional district was, the more likely they were to say that the 2020 election had been stolen.

When the two researchers ran the numbers, they found that both hypotheses were true. The Trumpier voters’ surroundings — whether measured by population density or by Trump’s margin of victory in their congressional district — the more likely they were to say that Biden had stolen the presidency.

These voters are living in what Clark and Peterson describe as “ideological and cultural vacuums” — and for this reason, the professors fear, election denialism is not going away. In the future, they write, “the public’s trust in the integrity of elections cannot be taken for granted by elected officials.”

Elaborating on that point in an interview, Clark emphasized that his findings were still preliminary. But he came up with the idea for the paper, he said, because he lived in a heavily pro-Trump area and had heard a lot of people advance a version of Finchem’s argument. That experience has left Clark with the impression that America’s partisan geography offers fertile soil for unscrupulous politicians who seize upon public misconceptions about elections.

“The door has been opened on it now, and there’s always the possibility that a politician can take advantage of it more effectively than Trump has,” Clark said.

Election denial isn’t a loser everywhere

It’s a sobering finding at a time when one of the dominant narratives emerging from the 2022 midterm elections is that election deniers were trounced at the ballot box. That was true in many places — and for the highest-profile candidates — but it was hardly the case everywhere.

In Indiana and Wyoming, for instance, voters elected secretaries of state who expressed support for Trump’s claims of fraud, while voters in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico rejected similar candidates. Most of the 139 House members who voted against certifying the 2020 election results for Pennsylvania were re-elected. And in Arizona, the Republican candidates for governor and attorney general are still disputing the results.

The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections

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A moment of reflection. In the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans face key questions about the future of their parties. With the House and Senate now decided, here’s where things stand:

Biden’s tough choice. President Biden, who had the best midterms of any president in 20 years as Democrats maintained a narrow hold on the Senate, feels buoyant after the results. But as he nears his 80th birthday, he confronts a decision on whether to run again.

Is Trump’s grip loosening? Ignoring Republicans’ concerns that he was to blame for the party’s weak midterms showing, Donald J. Trump announced his third bid for the presidency. But some of his staunchest allies are already inching away from him.

G.O.P leaders face dissent. After a poor midterms performance, Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell faced threats to their power from an emboldened right flank. Will the divisions in the party’s ranks make the G.O.P.-controlled House an unmanageable mess?

A new era for House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in the post and the face of House Democrats for two decades, will not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress. A trio of new leaders is poised to take over their caucus’s top ranks.

Divided government. What does a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-run Senate mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to the gridlock and brinkmanship that have defined a divided federal government in recent years.

Nor was election denial convincingly repudiated at the polls. Some election deniers ousted incumbents who stood up to Trump’s falsehoods. Russell Fry, for instance, has said the election was “rigged.” After winning a Republican primary in South Carolina against Representative Tom Rice, who voted for impeachment in 2021, Fry will now be in Congress.

So will Anna Paulina Luna, a Trump-backed former swimsuit model who won a Florida seat that was once held, before redistricting, by Charlie Crist, the former governor. Paulina Luna attended a screening of “2000 Mules,” the debunked film about the 2020 election, and has said she believed that “President Trump won that election” and that “voter fraud occurred.”

A poll watcher used binoculars as absentee ballots began to be processed early this month in Detroit.Credit…Nic Antaya for The New York Times

The media-diet problem

Clark and Peterson also float a complementary explanation for their findings: that not only are more conservative voters stuck in a geographic echo chamber, but they are also getting their information from more conservative sources — deepening their feeling that the 2020 election was stolen because they don’t know many people who voted for Biden.

You can see how polarized voters are by what news outlets they follow. In 2020, the Pew Research Center found that 93 percent of Americans who said Fox News was their main source of news identified as Republicans, while 95 percent of those who said MSNBC was their main news source were Democrats.

But that doesn’t quite capture the asymmetry in how members of the two major parties consume information.

In one Pew survey, more Democrats said they got their news from outlets that had politically mixed audiences — 48 percent for Democrats versus 34 percent for Republicans. In another, nearly a third of Republicans said they were getting their news directly from Trump.

How will Republicans react to their disappointing 2022?

When it comes to election denial’s place in American politics, “I don’t think we’re past it,” Clark told me.

But one could also draw the opposite conclusion from his research: that election denialism is almost exclusively a Trump-driven phenomenon, not some deeply rooted cancer in the electorate. Maybe it will just fade away whenever he does.

According to Pew, 61 percent of Republicans who were getting their election news from Trump were much more likely to say that “voter fraud is a major problem.” Only 36 percent of Republicans with a more traditional media diet said the same.

And consider this interesting wrinkle to Clark and Peterson’s data: Voters were much less likely to say their local elections were fraudulent than they were to say the same of national elections. That makes intuitive sense. Every day, Trump was hammering home the idea that he had been robbed of a second presidential term, while the officials in those districts, most of them Republicans, were not claiming that their re-elections had been marred by fraud.

In many cases, election-denying candidates might have been saying what they thought they needed to say to win a Republican primary. Perhaps election denial was not a firm conviction but just a cynical yet efficient method of signaling to Trump and his base that you were with him all the way.

Don Bolduc, the unsuccessful Republican nominee for Senate in New Hampshire, acknowledged as much. As soon as he won his primary, he said “the election was not stolen” despite having argued the opposite for months.

“The narrative that the election was stolen, it does not fly up here in New Hampshire for whatever reason,” Bolduc said in a podcast interview.

Since the midterms, Trump’s critics within the party have been quick to label him a loser for saddling the party with fringe candidates who could not win a general election.

Much depends on how Republicans are interpreting their defeats, though: Do they believe that Bolduc, for instance, lost because of his flirtation with election denial or because he held views on abortion and Social Security that were out of the mainstream in New Hampshire? A little from Column A, a little from Column B? Trump has railed against Bolduc for waffling on the 2020 election, but not many in the party agree that Bolduc would have been in better shape had he stuck to his original position.

Few Republicans have more forcefully articulated the view that election denial is toxic at the ballot box than Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, who said in a recent speech that Republicans were losing “because Donald Trump has put himself before everybody else.”

Even Trump’s political advisers seem to agree that election denial is not a winning issue. During his carefully scripted presidential announcement speech on Nov. 15, he made only one oblique reference to the subject.

Trump has complained about being muzzled in the weeks since then, but here’s another clue: Few, if any, elected Republicans are joining his unsubstantiated claims that Democrats stole this year’s election for governor in Arizona.

One of Trump’s most stalwart intellectual admirers, Victor Davis Hanson, has compared the former president’s fixation with 2020 to Captain Queeg’s obsession with strawberries in “The Caine Mutiny” and urged him to stop “wallowing in his victimization.” And that was in an ostensibly supportive essay.

But the real test of election denial’s future in the Republican Party will come when votes are on the line. So, as Republicans reckon with the fact that it’s a political loser — in swing areas, at least — let’s watch how that issue plays out in elections to come. Will G.O.P. primary contenders talk about it differently now?

What to read tonight

  • Katie Glueck writes that the stronger-than-expected Democratic showing in the midterms has taken the pressure off President Biden, who had been facing calls to not run in 2024.

  • Merrick Garland has shown a growing willingness to operate outside his comfort zone, Glenn Thrush writes in a news analysis, as the attorney general wrestles with how the Justice Department should handle its investigations of Donald Trump.

  • Trump is planning to steer clear of the Georgia runoff election for Senate, Michael Bender reports.

Thank you for reading On Politics, and for being a subscriber to The New York Times. — Blake

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