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Why it matters that GOP voters still can’t shake Trump’s ‘big lie’

More than 932 days later, most Republicans still reject the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election — which carries plenty of real-world consequences.


In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, as Donald Trump scrambled to convince his followers that he had won the race he lost, there was plenty of polling data suggesting that his lies were having the intended effect: Most Republican voters actually believed the nonsense that would soon become known as the “big lie.”

As regular readers know, I initially hoped that reality would set in gradually over time. It seemed at least somewhat plausible to think that some of the early polling on this — during the presidential transition period, for example — was driven by more of an emotional reaction than a meaningful assessment of the facts. Many GOP voters were led to believe that Trump would win, so perhaps their initial rejection of President Joe Biden’s victory was a combination of reflexive surprise and anger.

What’s more, as the 2020 race faded from view, Republicans failed to produce any evidence to substantiate the lies, and policymakers’ attention shifted to governing, common sense suggested that even GOP die-hards would move on.

They have not. In fact, my naive hopes about a gradual acceptance of reality have been dashed in dramatic fashion. Election Day 2020 was more than 932 days ago, and a Washington Post analysis took note of the latest CNN poll to show just how little has changed on this front.

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.

A charitable observer might emphasize that this represents at least a little progress, but it’s awfully tough to find solace in such data. We’re still looking at a landscape in which nearly 2-in-3 GOP voters believe plainly absurd conspiracy theories about the most recent American presidential election.

Does this matter? Are there are any meaningful consequences to so many Republicans embracing such brazen lies? I think the answer to both questions is yes.

In fact, we’ve already seen some of the real-world results. Ahead of the 2022 elections, polls showed similar percentages of GOP voters believing the “big lie,” which in turn led the party to nominate far-right and unelectable election deniers in many key races nationwide. Democrats had an unexpectedly strong 2022 cycle in part because a radicalized Republican base backed candidates who shared — or at least pretended to share — their ridiculous beliefs.

All of this also matters to the extent that GOP policymakers in state capitols have weaponized election denialism to justify new voter suppression policies.

But there’s also a forward-looking relevance. Not only will Republicans likely continue to nominate election deniers in down-ballot contests, but the Post’s analysis highlighted a recent Trump missive in which he falsely claimed to have won two presidential elections while noting that people like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis say he “can’t win.”

This gets back to a point we kicked around last week: Trump’s intraparty rivals want GOP voters to focus on winning the next race, which necessarily means rejecting the guy who lost the last race.

But the persistent polling data reflects the problem with the pitch: Most Republicans are convinced the former president won.

If the party’s other presidential candidates say Trump lost, much of the base will see them as traitors. If they say Trump won, then the whole rationale behind nominating a new GOP candidate disappears: Why reject the Republican they see as a two-time winner? Who would be more competitive than the successful candidate who has already proved himself in national elections?

Yes, obviously, you and I know that Trump isn’t a two-time winner and isn’t a successful candidate who has proved himself in national elections, but the point is that this reality has been rejected by those who’ll choose the party’s 2024 nominee.

How will the non-Trump Republican candidates thread this needle? I don’t know — and neither do they.

This post revises our related earlier coverage.