The “big lie” that Donald Trump actually won the election has developed a frightening durability that renders it almost impervious to facts, evidence and logic, at least in the minds of most Trump supporters. I can’t think of too many precedents in which so many people clung to a falsehood so ferociously.
But a recent Thomas Edsall/New York Times column led me to some interesting survey research that suggesting that many of those who believe the lie cannot be shaken, not even if you ask them what evidence would make them accept Joe Biden’s victory, and they tell you, and then that evidence is produced. It still doesn’t shake their belief in the lie or, if it briefly does, they find their way back to believing that Democratic cheating stole the election from its rightful winner, Donald Trump.
The surveys to which I alluded were conducted by Kevin Arceneaux of Sciences Po Paris and Rory Truex of Princeton. It involved asking the same panel of respondents questions about the election over time.
The most impressive result, to me was this: For those in the panel who started out believing that Donald Trump had won the election, they were asked what would cause them to believe that they were wrong and that Joe Biden actually won. The questions specified those things that might convince a reasonable, open-minded Trump supporter. And then those things happened. And then the scholars reinterviewed those same respondents. And huge portions of them nonetheless said that no, they still didn’t believe that Trump had lost.
For example, in their writeup of their findings, Arceneaux and Truex wrote:
In some of the survey waves, we showed respondents that denied the Biden victory a series questions of the form, “Would you believe Biden won if…” followed by different hypothetical scenarios.
Of the voters that denied the outcome, only 28.7% said they would believe Biden won if Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell were to say that Biden won more votes. About 31.0% would believe Biden won if the Electoral College were to award him a majority of votes. And 42.9% would believe Biden won if there were a Supreme Court decision to that effect. But as those events actually unfolded, we did not observe equivalent increases in acceptance of the election.
Because they were returning over time to the same panel of respondents, and because many of the what-ifs in the paragraph above did come true, like McConnell acknowledging Biden’s victory, and the Supreme Court refusing to overturn the result, Arceneaux and Truex were able to confirm that, while some who said such developments would cause them to accept the result did so, others refused to change their view that Trump had been the rightful winner. The two scholars phrased it this way: Some of the Republican’s in their panels “de-identif[ied] with Trump as the election outcome unfolded,” but a substantial portion “cut [them]selves off from reality rather than the candidate… [by] accepting the lie and doubling down on their support” for Trump and for the lie.
Based on the significant number who did the latter, they concluded that in future Republican primaries candidates who continue to repeat that the election was stolen from Trump will have a significant advantage. They explored hypothetical future matchups, in Republican primaries, between a candidate who remains loyal to the Trump lie and a candidate who accepts that Biden’s election was legitimate and they concluded:
We find evidence that the lie has the potential to shape the Republican Party and American politics for years to come. … We find that candidates who maintain Donald Trump won the 2020 election have a distinct electoral advantage, about 6 percentage points, versus candidates that do not. … Based on these findings, we expect many Republican candidates to perpetuate the lie in the next election cycle, or at the very least, refuse to refute it.