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Most Republican candidates endorse the ‘big lie’ — even when voters don’t

We examined whether candidates’ beliefs — for and against the "big lie” — matched up with those of their state’s voters. Nope.

- October 12, 2022

Most Republicans running for national or statewide office in 2022 have publicly stated that they believe the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. In many cases, these candidates are running for offices — like secretary of state — that would help oversee future elections.

But do their potential constituents also believe the “big lie” — or are these candidates running solely on the strength of their primary voters’ commitment to this falsehood? Here’s what our research found.

Measuring public opinion on the ‘big lie,’ by state

Since no pollster has systematically checked to see what proportion of each state’s voters believe the “big lie,” we used a method called multilevel regression with post-stratification to create reliable estimates.

We examined nationally representative surveys with this method. First, we pooled two waves of surveys from Bright Line Watch, one from November 2020 and the other from February 2021, each of which polled 2,700 respondents. We combined that information with data on each state’s demographics and political characteristics, matched against those 5,400 respondents, to make predictions about the percentage of each state’s voters who said they believed the 2020 election was stolen. The methodology is commonly used to produce subnational estimates of public opinion from national surveys.

To be sure that our model was accurate, we compared our estimates with specific state polls from Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts and Utah. We found that our model was accurate within 4 percentage points.

Notably, the polling data we used to inform our model was collected in the months immediately after the 2020 election. This allows us to establish public support for the “big lie” in each state long before the 2022 campaigns began. That makes it easier to establish whether citizens’ beliefs encouraged more election-denying Republican candidates to run for office in the months that followed.

State support for the ‘big lie’ does encourage more election-denying candidates

Nationally, the Bright Line Watch polls we analyzed found that 35 percent of Americans believed that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. However, our estimates show that belief in the “big lie” varies remarkably across the 50 states. In Maryland, Vermont and Massachusetts, fewer than 25 percent of adults endorsed the “big lie.” Elsewhere, in Arkansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma and West Virginia, at least two-thirds of the population believes the stolen election claims.

Perhaps even more surprising, those variations in public opinion appear largely unrelated to whether election-denying candidates are running in those states. When we try plotting the percentage of statewide Republican candidates who have endorsed the stolen election claims alongside the percentage of state voters who believe in the “big lie,” we find no clear pattern. For example, many states whose populations largely believe that the 2020 election was stolen do not actually have many Republican candidates on the ballot who endorse those claims.

Republican candidates are increasingly sharing misinformation, research finds

Likewise, we find many states where a relatively small proportion of the population believe the 2020 election was stolen — but many of the Republican statewide candidates endorse that. For example, 38 percent of Michigan’s eligible voters doubt the 2020 election results. But Kristina Karamo, the Republican candidate for Michigan secretary of state, quite publicly promotes the “big lie.” In fact, none of the Republican candidates for statewide office in Michigan have publicly accepted President Biden as the rightful winner of the 2020 election — even though most of their potential constituents accept that he won.

Similarly, in Pennsylvania, only 41 percent of eligible voters believe in the “big lie.” Yet, the Republican nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano, is a prominent denier of Biden’s victory and even attended the Jan. 6, 2021, “stop the steal” rally in Washington, D.C. Mastriano has made clear that he would use his executive powers to intervene in the next election’s administration.

By contrast, in Ohio, upward of 50 percent of the population has reservations about the 2020 election’s integrity. And yet Frank LaRosa, the Trump-endorsed Republican-nominee for secretary of state, affirms the election’s legitimacy — which he oversaw during his first term.

Conspiracy theories are spreading wildly. Why now?

So, who is pushing the ‘big lie?’

Overall, this suggests the emergence of Republican candidates in 2022 who endorse the “big lie” is largely unrelated to their state voters’ beliefs. These candidates may have been responding to opinion among Republican primary voters. But in many states they now face general elections in which most voters don’t accept that view.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Ron DeSantis, who did not face a primary in his reelection bid in Florida, has been careful in what he says about the 2020 election’s legitimacy. As in Pennsylvania and Michigan, most Floridians believe Biden legitimately won. And so DeSantis has not endorsed Trump’s lies directly. However, he has backed Republican election-denying candidates nationwide — and appointed someone as secretary of state — Cord Byrd — who has yet to acknowledge Biden’s victory.

This lack of fit suggests that Republican candidates are pushing these claims either on their own or in response to their primary voters, since those candidates are not responding to what potential general election voters in their states believe.

Congress is polarized. Fear of being ‘primaried’ is one reason.

Will being out of step with public views cost Republicans at the ballot box this November? If it does not, MAGA Republicans will capture the last line of defense protecting the integrity of our elections and be in position to further undermine the U.S. democratic process.

Professors, check out TMC’s new and improved classroom topic guides.

Brendan Hartnett (@BrendanHartnett) is a senior at Tufts University.

Brian Schaffner (@b_schaffner) is Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies at Tufts University and co-director of the Cooperative Election Study.

Correction: