Some pundits argue that this suggests a legitimacy crisis. When three-fourths of the followers of one of two major parties say they don’t trust the election results, the implication is that they won’t trust the incoming government. And a democracy relies on citizens’ trust.
But do Republicans genuinely believe the election was stolen — or are they just saying they do to be seen as good Republicans? Here’s what my research finds.
Here’s how I did my research
To look at this, I ran a study on Dec. 11, with 943 U.S. Democrats and Republicans (756 Democrats and 187 Republicans) found on Prolific. Because Prolific offers a non-representative sample, I examine effect sizes (the differences between treatment groups) rather than point estimates (the mean of one of these groups in isolation).
I randomly assigned respondents to be asked about either impressing or disappointing in-partisans. Republicans were told either:
“Please answer the following 2 questions as you think a Republican wanting to impress other Republicans would” or “Please answer the following 2 questions as you think a Republican wanting to disappoint other Republicans would.”
Democrats were told either:
“Please answer the following 2 questions as you think a Democrat wanting to impress other Democrats would” or “Please answer the following 2 questions as you think a Democrat wanting to disappoint other Democrats would.”
Then, all respondents were asked two questions about belief in election fraud and accepting the election results, with response options from strongly agree to strongly disagree:
There was likely a lot of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Republicans should accept the 2020 presidential election results.
By randomly assigning these “impress” versus “disappoint” prompts, I was able to compare the responses to these two questions across four groups: Republicans wanting to impress other Republicans; Republicans wanting to disappoint other Republicans; Democrats wanting to impress other Democrats; and Democrats wanting to disappoint other Democrats.
If there’s a gap in the responses between those who want to impress and disappoint others, we can infer that there’s social pressure to say one believes something. And if there’s a gap between those wanting to impress and disappoint one’s fellow partisans — and if it runs in opposite directions for Democrats and Republicans — we can infer that that social pressure is partisan. Such a result suggests that partisans believe that others in the party expect a particular response — and that it differs from the pressure on members of the other party.
Yes, Republicans feel social pressure to say the election was fraudulent
Republicans said that a Republican wanting to impress other partisans would say there was election fraud and that we shouldn’t accept the results. And they said that a Republican wanting to disappoint other partisans would say the opposite.
Meanwhile, Democrats said that a Democrat wanting to impress other Democrats would say there was not election fraud and that we should accept the results, while a Democrat wanting to disappoint fellow partisans would say the opposite. You can see this in the figures below.
These findings suggest that Republicans and Democrats are dealing with different social pressures from their fellow partisans. Democrats feel that they’re encouraged to say there was no election fraud and that we should accept the election results. Republicans feel encouraged to say the opposite: that there was election fraud and that we shouldn’t accept the election results.
But does this mean that people are lying in surveys about election fraud?
Of course, just because partisans feel social pressure to say something does not necessarily mean that they’re lying when they’re surveyed about their beliefs. But we know that social pressure quite powerfully shifts reported attitudes and behavior, including what people say about their own attitudes, values and partisanship.
In other words, the social pressure that Republicans feel to say the election was stolen may actually push at least some of them to believe that it was. Others may simply be saying that’s what they believe, but know that, in fact, Biden won more popular and electoral votes.
Think about what this means: The U.S. has become so polarized that many Republicans feel strong social pressure not to accept a democratic transition of power.
My results suggest three more things that are cause for both pessimism and optimism.
First, discussing Republicans’ belief in election fraud could make the problem worse. Doing so reinforces the idea that Republicans believe there’s been election fraud while Democrats don’t — which reinforces the social pressure to respond accordingly.
Second, it’s very hard to measure what citizens really think about an election’s legitimacy. As political scientists Ryan Claasen, Michael Ensley and John Barry Ryan wrote in a recent TMC article, many partisans only believe certain actions are stealing the election when the other party does it.
My research findings complicate this further with the fact that those who genuinely believe the election was stolen are pressuring fellow party members to say they believe that as well.
Finally, my research suggests that the surveys finding widespread Republican belief that the 2020 election was fraudulent isn’t really as strong as we might think. Some people may simply be saying that’s what they believe in order to look like a good Republican.
Elizabeth C. Connors (@littleconnors) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.