The 2022 primaries are happening in the long shadow of the 2020 election.
One measure of former president Donald Trump’s power over the Republican Party is whether primary voters back candidates who endorse the idea that the 2020 election was stolen through a massive conspiracy of voter fraud — the claim at the heart of the “Big Lie.” Steve Bannon, far-right media figure and former Trump adviser, has said that support for that claim will provide a “litmus test” for Republicans running in 2022.
Observers on Tuesday will be watching to see if Trump’s endorsement of J.D. Vance — who has called Joe Biden a “crazy fake president” — in the Ohio Senate race puts him over the top in the primary.
“Trump has not accepted his defeat in 2020, which is a very unusual thing for a politician to do in this country,” said David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College who researches political parties and elections, comparing the former president to other close losers like Al Gore or Hillary Clinton. “He’s the one personally sowing this suspicion, promoting this suspicion and using it as a litmus test for loyalty to him, and, by extension, loyalty to the conservative cause.”
According to the States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan election protection organization, at least 53 election deniers are running for governor across 25 states. Candidates who subscribe to the Big Lie are also running for U.S. Senate and House, and for state positions that oversee elections, including attorney general and secretary of state. In nine states, candidates for all three statewide offices have questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
In the short term, it may be smart politics to vie for Republican votes by expressing support for the Big Lie. Even after more than a year of pollsters asking the question, polls still reliably indicate that a majority of Republican voters believe the 2020 election was stolen. Candidates have made this a vocal part of their platform in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/University of Georgia poll, 45 percent of GOP primary voters said they would be more likely to support a candidate who had received a Trump endorsement.
Political scientists have tried to measure whether Republican voters truly believe in the claims of rampant voter fraud or whether they’re signaling a broader support for Trump; new research suggests that the belief is genuinely held.
“If a large group of citizens believe, with zero evidence, that a presidential election was stolen, it can have a corrosive effect on their faith in future elections,” said Matthew Green, a politics professor at Catholic University who researches political institutions. “At best, it means they get disengaged: They don’t vote, they don’t trust institutions. At worst, though, it can lead to people seeking alternative means to gain power, including violence.”
The next year will serve to indicate whether embracing an explicit lie helps advance the Republican cause. If an entire party believes something demonstrably not true — or sees no political benefit to advocating for the truer cause — the broader cost is to American democracy itself, experts warn.
The long shadow of Donald Trump
Already, Trump pulled his endorsement of Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, an ex-Trump ally who is running for Senate from Alabama, when Brooks asked voters to put claims of voter fraud “behind you.” Brooks later issued a statement saying, “neither the U.S. Constitution nor the U.S. Code permit what President Trump asks. Period.”
Experts say that expressing belief in the Big Lie may be useful for winning a Trump endorsement.
“If you’re in a close race, in a primary, and you want to try to get a leg up on your opposition, a Trump endorsement can be very helpful,” said Green. “Talking about the 2020 election is a surefire way to get his attention.”
Trump has made more than 100 endorsements for the Senate, House and governorships. Of those, more than 70 percent believe the 2020 election was fraudulent, according to the politics website FiveThirtyEight.
According to a University of Georgia poll, likely Republican voters care more about a Trump endorsement for down-ballot races — including lieutenant governor and secretary of state — than for the high-profile governor’s race.
In that race, incumbent Brian Kemp has maintained a steady lead over Trump-endorsed David Perdue. Kemp refused to contest Biden’s Georgia victory in 2020, earning Trump’s ire.
Notably, Trump’s endorsements don’t always correspond to which candidate supports the Big Lie. In some races, he’s chosen one adherent over another — as in Ohio, where he endorsed the author and venture capitalist Vance over former state treasurer Joshua Mandel, when both support the Big Lie.
His support corresponds with the Big Lie more in House races — 81 percent of his endorsed candidates are election deniers, according to FiveThirtyEight — than in Senate and gubernatorial races.
Insofar as Republicans see a Trump endorsement as important to their path to victory, embracing the Big Lie can be one part of that strategy.
“It’s not that it’s the singular issue that unites all Republicans. But that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant, either,” said Hopkins. “As long as there isn’t a downside seen by a candidate to making that appeal, there’s no reason not to make that appeal. How many votes it actually wins you may not be large, but may be, in a close primary, pivotal.”
One measure of the salience of this issue is in polls of whether Republicans identify first with Trump or first with their party. In 2020, voters signaled they supported the former president before their party. But that’s beginning to shift.
The danger, Green said, is whether questioning electoral integrity becomes part of Republican Party identity.
“It’s entirely possible that the Republican Party is moving in a durable direction toward questioning the sanctity of the electoral process,” he said. “Identity is important for explaining a lot of voting behavior, sometimes more so than policy.”
From 2020 to 2022 to 2024
A healthy democracy depends on losing candidates — and their supporters — accepting defeat. But according to election researchers, faith in the integrity of a lost election is diminishing.
“There is increasing evidence that voters’ confidence in the outcome of elections, and more specifically, that their vote was counted accurately, is dominated by … whether the voter supported the winning or losing candidate in an election,” researchers wrote in a blog post for the MIT Election Data and Science Lab.
The closer the results, the less confident voters are in the integrity of the election, the researchers found.
As a result, in states that Trump lost by less than 10 percent of votes — including Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Trump supporters’ confidence in the election’s outcome hovered under 20 percent.
Down the line, the impact of repeating such a message may be felt in voting behavior. “If we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020, Republicans will not be voting in ʼ22 or ʼ24,” Trump said an October statement to NBC News.
Sowing the seeds of a conspiratorial understanding of American elections may also affect how elections are administered, Hopkins said, particularly in places where those offices are held by partisan officials. In this way, the Big Lie creates a political pressure that could create the very election corruption its adherents seek to fight.
“The more that Republicans believe — or at least an influential proportion of Republicans believe — that there are fundamental flaws and conspiracies with the casting and counting of ballots, then the more likely it is that Republican election administrators do things like refuse to certify election results,” he said. “That could have an effect on the administration of future elections, the validity of future elections.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.