In that two-week period in January 2021 between the riot at the Capitol and Joe Biden’s inauguration as president, CNN’s pollster SSRS was in the field asking Americans how they viewed the prior year’s election.
At the time, an overwhelming percentage of Republicans said the election was illegitimate — despite months of investigation revealing no evidence of voter fraud. More than half of Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) said there was solid evidence that the election was illegitimate, which there wasn’t.
Over time, those positions softened. In CNN’s newest poll, released on Wednesday, the percentage of Republicans saying the election was illegitimate fell from 71 percent in January 2021 to … 63 percent. The percentage saying that Biden won fairly rose from 22 percent to 36 percent.
An equivalent 36 percent still thinks there’s solid evidence the election wasn’t legitimate.
Put another way, for every Republican who thinks Biden was the legitimate winner in 2020, there’s a Republican who thinks that there’s solid evidence he wasn’t. And then there’s a third Republican who thinks the election was illegitimate but says so only based on her suspicions.
It’s not clear what “solid evidence the election was illegitimate” really means. Some of these respondents probably accept Trump’s long-standing assertions that there was rampant voter fraud or cheating with mail-in ballots, the sort of claim that’s been debunked scores of times by scores of observers. Others may ascribe to the alternate theory (also promoted by Trump) that the election was simply stacked against him. That the powers-that-be conspired to hurt him, either by things like suppressing the story about Hunter Biden’s laptop (which didn’t cost him the election) or by working to increase voter turnout.
For Trump, it doesn’t matter. He’s never cared which theory you believed about how his 2020 loss wasn’t actually a loss, any more than he cared which narrative about the Russia interference story was the one that convinced you the whole thing was fishy. Trump treats excuses the way Starbucks treats stores; it doesn’t matter if two of them trample on one another as long as he’s making a sale.
This inertia in Republican skepticism about the 2020 election is hugely useful to Trump. Consider the argument he offered on Truth Social this week.
“I’ve won two Elections, the second far bigger than the first (it was Rigged!), my Endorsement is considered, far and away, the most powerful in political history, I’m blowing away DeSanctimonious in the Polls, and am leading Biden & Harris BIG, whereas DeSanctus is losing to BOTH,” he rambled, using one of his nicknames for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). “I have gotten more people Elected than any other human being. Yet I have to listen to these liddle’ lightweights like ‘Ron’ say I can’t win. Like the Dems, it’s just DISINFORMATION. The TRUTH is, they can’t win!!!”
There’s a lot of nonsense in there, but pick out the throughline: He “won two [e]lections” and yet people like DeSantis “say I can’t win.”
This is, in fact, a key argument DeSantis is making. But as YouGov polling released this week makes clear, Republicans aren’t buying it. They still see Trump as the more likely victor in 2024 than DeSantis by a 2-to-1 margin.
And why not? Beyond Trump simply hammering on this (silly) idea that he won both of his presidential contests (when he in fact lost the popular vote both times), Republicans have viewed the 2020 results as suspect from the outset. If your plan is to convince Republicans that Trump can’t win, you need to overcome the existent idea that, barring some outside forces, he did, twice.
This is a particularly difficult argument to make if, like DeSantis, you trail Trump badly in primary polling, too.
Setting the politics aside, this poll finding should be deeply dispiriting to anyone who likes to believe that the truth will out. The 2020 presidential election was 30 months ago, and there is no solid evidence that it was illegitimate, much less to think that it was just based on vibes. Yet as many Republicans think that evidence exists as think that what really happened: Biden won.
Good luck convincing Republican voters otherwise.