Home > News > Almost a quarter of influential Republicans deny Biden’s victory, survey says
158 views 8 min 0 Comment

Almost a quarter of influential Republicans deny Biden’s victory, survey says

It’s not just ordinary Republican voters who harbor doubts about the 2020 election

- January 12, 2021

Last week’s violent insurrection against a joint session of Congress showed that extremist white nationalists think the 2020 presidential election is illegitimate. Moreover, at least six Republican senators and a majority of House GOP members also seem to believe this, despite the evidence to the contrary.

Our new research suggests denial of the election results is common among other Republican political elites as well.

The months-long misinformation campaign — which Trump started long before the election — can easily explain why many Republicans deny Joe Biden’s win was legitimate. The research suggests public opinion mimics elite partisan cues, including misinformation.

What you need to know about how many Americans condone political violence — and why

As for the nearly 150 representatives and senators objecting to the electoral college vote, the reelection incentive — or an eye toward higher office — may motivate Republicans in Congress to support Trump and offer, at best, a muted criticism of the attackers.

But what about the thousands of movers and shakers in national politics whom you’ve never heard of? How many of the thousands of GOP consultants, media professionals, military brass and corporate power brokers believe Biden’s victory is illegitimate?

In theory, political elites are socialized to distinguish between fictitious narratives and the reality of politics and government. It should stand to reason that they should accept the actual election outcome. But our recent survey reveals a substantial minority of these Republican elites do not believe Biden’s victory was legitimate.

Look beyond Trump’s language to see the roots of recent political violence in the U.S.

How we did our research

Beginning two weeks after the November election, we fielded the Survey of Political Elites and Public Servants, which surveyed 2,900 political elites. We identified political elites by entries in Leadership Connect, a commercial directory of “key decision makers in government, business, and media.” This directory lists employers, job titles and contact information for congressional staff, state and local officials, executive branch careerists and political appointees, federal judges and court personnel, lobbyists, lawyers and others.

We asked respondents: “Do you accept the results of the 2020 presidential election as legitimate? [Note: Experts have called the election in favor of Joe Biden.]”

Then, working with Data for Progress, we asked the same question of a national sample of 1,098 likely voters in mid-December.

The graph below shows the answers among both the political elite and likely voter samples, broken down by party identification:

2020 survey results.
2020 survey results.

Overall, political elites are more likely to accept the election outcome than the public. Just over one-third (35 percent) of the public overall rejects the results or said they “don’t know” whether Biden won the election. Among political elites, it’s 8 percent.

Unsurprisingly, this belief is much more prevalent among Republicans than Democrats. Among Republican likely voters overall, 69 percent reject the legitimacy of the election, with the highest percentage among self-identified strong Republicans.

Among Republican elites, this percent is smaller but hardly small. A non-trivial fraction of these influential Republicans, 26 percent, either reject or are unsure about whether Biden is the legitimate president. Here, too, we find that strong Republicans are the most likely to reject or report being unsure about the election result.

Who are the GOP elites who doubt Biden’s victory?

Many observers trace the origins of election rejection to questions of race and ethnicity. For example, political scientist Hakeem Jefferson argues the U.S. Capitol insurrectionists are “grievous white people worried that their position in the status hierarchy [who are] threatened by a multiracial coalition of Americans who brought Biden to power and defeated Trump.” Another idea is that those who reject Biden’s victory are susceptible to conspiracy theories generally.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up here for our newsletter.

So we asked elites their thoughts about conspiracy theories and race. For example, we asked them to rate the truth of this statement: “There are secret organizations that greatly influence political decisions.” On a scale of 0-100, where 100 is the most truthful, elites who accept the election outcome rated that statement about 20 on average. But election deniers saw more truth in it, rating that statement at nearly 50. We also asked whether that covid-19 was engineered in a lab in China. Elites who accept Biden’s victory thought that statement was false (an average rating of 11). But elites who denied Biden’s victory saw it as at least somewhat true (an average rating of 64).

Elites’ attitudes about race are also associated with views of the election. Consider the statement “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.” An overwhelming majority (84 percent) of elites who accept Biden’s victory agree with this statement. Among those who do not accept his victory, only 20 percent agree. These differences in opinions about conspiracies and race emerge in several other survey questions as well.

It may be that some of these election doubters will leave along with Trump. But that doesn’t mean they will go away. Many will exit through Washington’s revolving door and go on to lucrative careers in politics and related fields.

If so, just as the insurrectionists include many well-educated community leaders — and at least one participant who flew to D.C. via private jet — a large chunk of Washington elites could continue to deny Biden’s legitimacy as president and believe false conspiracies about election fraud.

Professors: Check out TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Alexander C. Furnas (@zfurnas) is a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Science of Science and Innovation in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Timothy M. LaPira (@timlapira) is professor of political science at James Madison University.