Skip to content
The Perilous Gap in Election Trust
Go to my account

The Perilous Gap in Election Trust

Election doubts have already warped one party. Could they consume the republic?

Hundreds of Trump supporters gather for the Stop the Steal Rally in Atlanta, GA on November 21, 2020. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

What will be the consequences of having so many Republicans distrust our system of elections? For that party and for the republic?

We get a peek at the effects for the GOP in a pair of new surveys from the bipartisan team that does polling for Fox News. In South Carolina’s GOP primary, former President Donald Trump clocks in at 48 percent support, 11 points more than the next three candidates combined. It’s a similar story for Iowa’s caucuses, where Trump drew 46 percent support, more than double than either of his nearest competitors, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

It might seem obvious that Trump is succeeding so wildly in spite of his obsession with election fraud, refusal to accept his defeat in 2020, and lack of remorse for trying to steal a second term. One clear lesson from last year’s midterms was that candidates who embraced Trump’s claims fared miserably. While it may be disconcerting that 30 percent of Americans told pollsters that President Biden won his office due to voter fraud, it is undoubtedly a loser of an issue with most voters.

The truth, though, is that Trump’s current success is in considerable part because of his claims. 

In Iowa and South Carolina, Republican voters said the most important issue in candidate selection is electability, and in both cases, Trump was seen as the candidate most likely to beat Biden. Some of that is chicken-or-the-egg business. If you prefer Tide detergent for other reasons, even ones about which you’re not fully conscious or ashamed—the ads, the packaging, the delicious taste—you’re likely to rate it highly in cleaning clothes. To think otherwise would be to admit you are a dupe. If Trump’s voters change their mind about him for any reason, they would likely also alter their assessment of electability.

But it is also true that Trump benefits enormously from the belief among Republicans that the system is rigged. The 30 percent of Americans who said Biden stole his office includes 68 percent of Republicans who think that way. They may have different definitions of “voter fraud,” running the gamut from out-and-out ballot rigging to media manipulation or the abuse of the justice system, but they share a view that the game is so corrupt that a Republican cannot win in a fair fight. Trump’s absolute faith in the idea of a failed system and promise to outrig the riggers makes his nomination a necessity to those who share his view. He promulgates conspiracy theories for which he is the only solution: He’s bad, they’re worse, and they deserve what they get.

For Republicans, embracing this way of thinking detaches much of their electorate from considerations of persuasion and appeal to swing voters. Corruption comes to be seen first as a necessary evil and then a virtue. 

What happens to a party that openly embraces bad character as a necessary component for success? It depends on how well it works. Trump ducked responsibility for his own loss and his part in midterm failures in 2018 and 2022, but would a loss in 2024 get most Republicans to at last turn away? What if it’s very close? What if Trump wins, but again says that the vote was fraudulent and only he could have overcome the dark forces arrayed against the party?

Republicans are standing at the threshold of a door that may lead the them to ruin, but they might also be leading the rest of the country into an era of political chaos in which, as in many nations, election results are not believed and no government can obtain the stamp of real legitimacy from a free, fair vote of the people.

In a Gallup poll ahead of the 2022 midterms, public confidence in the conduct of elections, 63 percent, was in the same broad vein in which it has resided since at least 2004. What’s different is the partisan alignment of distrust. Independents have remained the same, hovering in the high 60s, but Republicans, who were at 87 percent in 2004, dropped by more than 40 points over the next 18 years. Democrats reached a low of 57 percent confidence in 2008, but subsequently gained nearly 30 points. 

What accounts for the parties trading places on the issue? First and probably most importantly, one party has been doing much better than the other in recent elections. We are all likely to think that results that align with our interests are legitimate but to be more skeptical of results that go against our wishes. 

Three bad cycles for the GOP must certainly have had some effect. According to the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of Democratic voters in last year’s midterm elections thought the balloting would be conducted very or somewhat well compared to 72 percent in 2020 and 79 percent in 2018. Compare that to the numbers for GOP voters, 56 percent of whom expressed confidence in the election process in 2022, up from 50 percent in 2020, but still down dramatically from the 87 percent of 2018. 

Then there’s COVID. Democrats were enthusiastic about altering voting rules for the pandemic, believing that the changes were necessary and would also be advantageous to their candidates, or at least neutral. Many Republicans fought the changes, believing them to be unnecessary or pushed by Democrats looking to exploit the crisis. 

Most effulgently, though, is Trump, who alleged massive fraud in the election he actually won, continues to tell Republicans that he was cheated in his 2020 loss, and forecasts more of the same in 2024. This certainly has its effects on Republican voter psychology, but probably at least as much on that of Democrats.

The low confidence in elections previously expressed by Democrats was the product of similar stimuli that have driven down Republican confidence levels, including two decades of denigration of the democratic process by prominent members of the blue team. Starting with the 2000 Florida recount and continuing with claims of manipulated results in George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection, Democrats moved on to irresponsible allegations of massive voter disenfranchisement and vote rigging. Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, for example, was widely lauded in her party for her claims that her 2018 gubernatorial loss to Republican Brian Kemp was illegitimate. “Jim Crow 2.0” was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the system.

But as with a host of issues in recent years—free trade, confidence in the FBI, admiration for the military—the parties moved past each other. Circumstances, real or imaginary, start the migration, then perceived partisan advantage intensifies the move. But finally, the parties hunker down in oppositional postures. As siblings often choose their likes and dislikes to define themselves in opposition to each other, so do parties. If Republicans are attacking something, Democrats are inclined to defend it and vice versa.    

If Trump did win the presidency again, many Democrats might abandon their recently discovered affection for the system. And many Republicans would no doubt feel great gusts of new confidence.

The consequences of such deep distrust in the American system among Republicans are already clear for the party. The inability to shed Trump and his obvious dangers for the GOP and the institutions of government is a product of his successful nurturing of the same kinds of skepticism that we saw in Democrats after 2000. If Trump is nominated again and loses, Republicans will either return to competing in the system as it is, or face oblivion.

The more perilous path for the republic, though, seems to be one in which Trump wins by hook and crook with the help of his allies in swing states, and members of both parties conclude that an honest campaign can’t win.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.