Some 35 percent of Americans—including 68 percent of Republicans—believe the Big Lie, pushed relentlessly by former President Donald Trump and amplified by conservative media, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. They think that Trump was the true victor and that he should still be in the White House today.
I regularly host focus groups to better understand how voters are thinking about key political topics. Recently, I decided to find out why Trump 2020 voters hold so strongly to the Big Lie.
For many of Trump’s voters, the belief that the election was stolen is not a fully formed thought. It’s more of an attitude, or a tribal pose. They know something nefarious occurred but can’t easily explain how or why. What’s more, they’re mystified and sometimes angry that other people don’t feel the same.
As a woman from Wisconsin told me, “I can’t really put my finger on it, but something just doesn’t feel right.” A man from Pennsylvania said, “Something about it just didn’t seem right.” A man from Arizona said, “It didn’t smell right.”
The exact details of the story vary—was it Hugo Chávez who stole the election? Or the CIA? Or Italian defense contractors? Outlandish claims like these seem to have made this conspiracy theory more durable, not less. Regardless of plausibility, the more questions that are raised, the more mistrustful Trump voters are of the official results.
Perhaps that’s because the Big Lie has been part of their background noise for years.
Remember that Trump began spreading the notion that America’s elections were “rigged” in 2016—when he thought he would lose. Many Republicans firmly believed that the Democrats would steal an election if given the chance. When the 2020 election came and Trump did lose, his voters were ready to doubt the outcome.
Some Trump voters looked at the numbers and couldn’t make sense of them. How could so many more people have voted in 2020 than in 2016? A man from North Carolina, when asked why he thought the election was stolen, said, “There was 10 million more votes for Trump in this last election than he got in 2016. You’re telling me that [Joe] Biden got that many?”
To the extent that Big Lie believers try to explain their skepticism over millions more people voting for Biden than for Trump, they often point to relative crowd sizes at rallies. As the man from North Carolina put it, “I personally went to Trump rallies that were filling stadiums, and then Biden can’t even fill a freaking library. Like, no, it’s not true. I don’t believe it. Don’t buy it.”
Another common refrain is that the votes “flipped” in the middle of Election Night. Trump supporters went to bed thinking that their guy had won and then woke up to a different reality—which to them was startling and deeply suspicious. A woman from Georgia told me, “When I went to bed, Trump was so in the lead and then [I got] up and he’s not in the lead. I mean, that’s crazy.”
Long before Election Day, the media had warned about a “red mirage” and alerted Americans to the possibility that Trump would have a large lead on Election Night only to have it dissipate as mail-in ballots were counted. But if you were watching Fox News, you probably didn’t hear any of this. Instead, Trump, MAGA-friendly politicians, and conservative media outlets were priming voters to see a conspiracy.
Trump correctly assumed that the majority of the mail-in ballots that would be counted late at night would go to Biden. So he cast mail-in ballots as fraudulent almost by definition. The woman from Georgia told me that mail-in ballots were “a crock,” without elaborating further.
Attempts to set the record straight tend to backfire. When you tell Trump voters that the election wasn’t stolen, some of them tally that as evidence that it was stolen. A woman from Arizona told me, “I think what convinced me more that the election was fixed was how vehemently they have said it wasn’t.”
These voters aren’t bad or unintelligent people. The problem is that the Big Lie is embedded in their daily life. They hear from Trump-aligned politicians, their like-minded peers, and MAGA-friendly media outlets—and from these sources they hear the same false claims repeated ad infinitum.
Now we are at the point where to be a Republican means to believe the Big Lie. And as long as Republicans leading the party keep promoting and indulging the Big Lie, that will continue to be the case. If I’ve learned anything from my focus groups, it’s that something doesn’t have to make sense for voters to believe it’s true.