Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, earning 81 million votes to Donald Trump’s 74 million. Biden flipped five states that Trump had won four years before, often by only narrow margins. Countless investigations and adjudications have unfolded over the intervening three years and demonstrated unequivocally that the 2020 election was neither stolen nor rigged to ensure a Biden victory.
And yet, after those three years and with a near-certain Biden-Trump rematch only a year away, most Republicans and Republican-leaning independents reject this reality. The party is divided into three pools of belief about 2020, two of which — more than two-thirds of the total — believe that Biden’s win was illegitimate.
Over the weekend, all three of those groups manifested in the public conversation: in an interview with House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), in attorney John Eastman’s interview with “60 Minutes” and when former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) appeared at a gathering in Florida.
Let’s first define the three groups. We can use CNN polling conducted by SSRS to do so. In August, more than two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said that Biden’s 2020 win wasn’t legitimate. About 4 in 10 of them thought there was solid evidence that Biden’s win wasn’t legitimate, which there isn’t. Only 3 in 10 thought that the election was legitimate.
It’s important to note that these numbers have not changed dramatically in recent months. At the time Biden was inaugurated, a majority of Republicans said there was solid evidence that the election wasn’t legitimate. That’s declined — but is up this year, alongside support for Trump’s 2024 nomination bid. The percentage saying the election was illegitimate at all has always hovered around two-thirds.
Eastman represents that “solid evidence” bloc. In his “60 Minutes” appearance, he insisted that he suspected rampant fraud and claimed that there had been insufficient investigation to change his mind. This is misguided or dishonest, particularly given that — when questioned by a much friendlier interviewer earlier this year — Eastman was happy to rattle off allegations that have explicitly been proved false.
“Certainly they’re not investigating [fraud] to the level I think the evidence warrants,” Eastman insisted on “60 Minutes,” which is a nice encapsulation of the way in which this belief system propagates. It assumes that the “evidence” is valid and inculpatory and any investigation that fails to validate this assumption is insufficient. It’s the approach taken by Bigfoot enthusiasts: I have this blurry photo and, if you can’t find him, it’s because you’re not looking hard enough.
Again, almost 40 percent of Republicans believe that solid evidence of the election’s illegitimacy exists.
Then there’s Scalise. Appearing on ABC News’s “This Week,” Scalise was asked to respond to the announcement by Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) that he would not seek reelection next year — an announcement that cited his party’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of what happened in the 2020 election and the months afterward. Buck had been critical of Scalise and others for trying to block electors submitted from states Biden won in the hours after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol.
ABC host George Stephanopoulos asked Scalise eight times whether the majority leader believed the 2020 election was stolen. Eight times, Scalise refused to say.
Instead, he said things like, “Joe Biden’s the president of the United States,” and “There are states that didn’t follow their laws.” He declined to say there was solid evidence the election was stolen — but instead talked obliquely about his ostensible concerns about the outcome.
The two groups of illegitimate-election Republicans align with the two common shorthands for doubting the election: “stolen” and “rigged.” Eastman is a member of the solid-evidence, “stolen” group. Scalise adheres to the vaguer, “rigged” rhetoric. This rhetoric, it’s worth noting, emerged in part because Republicans knew that Trump’s arguments about rampant fraud would not be realized, but that the Republican base demanded adherence to the idea that Biden didn’t legitimately win. So this idea is that the election was rigged — by expanding voting access during the pandemic, by social media companies putting their thumbs on the scales, by investments in solidifying voter turnout — so that Trump couldn’t win. These arguments are generally vaguer than the election-fraud ones, which is their advantage: It’s hard to disprove a vibe. But they are also more anti-democratic, centering at times on the idea that the problem was that too many people voted.
But you see the line Scalise is trying to walk. He insisted to Stephanopoulos that only the media wanted to talk about 2020 — since he certainly has no interest in doing so. Talking about the election for people like Scalise is lose-lose, since it reveals either that he’s elevating nonsensical arguments or that he’s insufficiently obsequious to Trump’s assertions.
We will quickly note here that the “rigged,” no-solid-evidence cluster of Republicans includes any elected officials who recognize that Trump’s loss was legitimate and obvious but who are uninterested in stating that publicly.
After all, consider what happened to Christie.
The former governor has repeatedly bashed Trump for claiming that the election was illegitimate or stolen. He’s attacked Trump for a variety of other things, too, including the actions that led to his various indictments. But it’s of a piece: There’s little distinction among Trump supporters for varieties of apostasy against the former president.
When Christie stepped out onto the stage at the Republican Party of Florida’s Freedom Summit, he was met with a chorus of boos. Christie simply smiled at the cacophony for a bit, then addressed it.
“Look. Every one of those boos, every one of those catcalls, every one of those yells will not solve one problem we face in this country, will not solve — and will not make this country better,” he said. Then, more testily, he added: “Your anger against the truth is reprehensible.” The boos grew louder.
Christie correctly believes that the 2020 election was legitimate and argues for that position. And this is the result.
The GOP is dominated by people who assert that 2020 was an illegitimate election. Some of them are sincere, deluded into thinking that there exists evidence that Trump was robbed of victory. Others are either skeptical of the outcome or willing to bolster skepticism because they recognize that’s what the party’s base demands. Others still confront that base, and earn disgust and anger in response.
One year from Monday, it will be the day after the 2024 presidential general election. Trump is likely to have faced off against Biden once again, and he will have a base of support that is already heavily invested in the idea that presidential elections can and have been tainted by illegitimacy.
Should Trump again be declared the loser, it’s hard to predict what will follow, but it’s easy to predict how his base will respond.