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Why Do Republicans Predict a Rigged Election When They’re Projected to Win?

Because as you lose faith in democratic governance, you lose interest in whatever method brings you to power.

Donald Trump stands at a podium labeled "Save America."
Dustin Franz/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, November 5.

The hard right, which GOP candidates dare not contradict, says tomorrow’s midterm elections will be rigged. This is not easy to reconcile with the strong likelihood that tomorrow’s midterm elections will go well for Republicans. The election-denying sore-loser party of 2020 is preparing to become the election-denying sore-winner party of 2022.

“Calls for actual violence after the midterms are real,” Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Politico’s Mark Scott. “Scores” of hard-right groups around the country are alleging election fraud in advance of Election Day, Politico reports, with followers numbering in the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands.

The conspiracists include former President Donald Trump, who recirculated last week a baseless rumor that voting machines in Wisconsin have been hacked by WiscNet, a nonprofit cooperative that provides internet access to public schools and libraries. WiscNet has previously been targeted by Republican state legislators who want to turn its state contracts over to for-profit companies. The source of the rumor, Republican state Representative Janel Brandtjen, who chairs the Wisconsin Assembly’s elections committee, moved in late July to decertify the 2020 election results even though the Republican-controlled state legislature had already audited them and found no evidence to justify decertification. Now she’s calling for “an immediate post-election forensic examination of these voting machines by independent, cyber experts.”

Conspiracists don’t mind predicting the midterms will be a rigged game in Georgia—some bullshit about Q.R. codes—even though Republicans control the state legislature, the governorship, and the secretary of state’s office, giving them absolute control over the election apparatus. After all, Georgia’s secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, famously betrayed the cause by turning a deaf ear to then-President Trump’s felonious plea that “I have to find 12,000 votes.” If challenger Stacey Abrams defeats Governor Brian Kemp, the conspiracists will have no more trouble vilifying Raffensperger than they did in 2020.

Election deniers are, as you would expect, focusing their efforts this year on battleground states. In Wisconsin, for instance, the governor’s and Senate races are judged a toss-up. The deniers may be crazy, but they aren’t stupid.

Still, this is a national movement that Trump started in 2020. The previous movement to deny Trump’s loss (which began before the 2020 election) begat this year’s movement to delegitimize the midterms. As the example of Wisconsin’s Brandtjen demonstrates, the two causes are one. So if you’re running this year on the message that the 2020 elections were rigged, aren’t you setting yourself up for cognitive dissonance on November 9? More than half of all Republicans running for congressional and key statewide offices this year say the 2020 presidential election was stolen, according to projections by The Washington Post’s Adrian Blanco and Amy Gardner. Most of these deniers are projected to win. When they do, won’t it be awkward to explain how an elections apparatus that was so thoroughly corrupt in 2020 cleaned itself up in two short years?

The cognitive dissonance should be even more acute for Republican voters. According to the Pew Research Center, as recently as October 2018, the proportion of Republican voters who expected the following month’s midterm elections to be run “very” or “somewhat” well was actually larger (87 percent) than the proportion of Democrats who thought the same (79 percent). More important, the partisan gap was only eight percentage points. A healthy 81 percent of all voters did not anticipate a corrupt election. There was a lot wrong with the country in 2018—Donald Trump was president, after all—but both parties demonstrated a roughly equal faith in the elections apparatus.

That changed dramatically in October 2020, when Biden was leading in the polls. Instead of 87 percent, now only 50 percent of Republicans expected the following month’s presidential election to be run “very” or “somewhat” well. The reason was that Trump had been telling supporters for months that mail ballots would be used to rig the election. The proportion of Democratic voters expressing faith in the election, meanwhile, dipped only slightly, from 79 percent in 2018 to 72 percent in 2020.

After Trump lost, a majority of Republicans accepted Trump’s narrative that Biden stole the election, and 61 percent continue to believe that, or at least to tell pollsters they believe it. Now, according to Pew, 44 percent of Republicans decline to agree that tomorrow’s midterm elections will be run “very” or “somewhat” well. That’s smaller than the 50 percent who declined to say so in October 2020. But the partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats on this question has widened from eight percentage points in 2018 to 22 percentage points in 2020 to a whopping 32 percentage points in 2022.

Democrats have been told for nearly two years that they’re likely to lose the House, and maybe also the Senate, yet Pew’s polls show their faith in elections has increased since 2018. Republicans have been told during the same period that they’re likely to win back the House, and maybe the Senate, yet the Pew polls show their faith in elections has declined since 2018.*

The reason is that over the past two years Republicans, at Trump’s instruction, have surrendered to an increasingly nihilistic and repellant worldview, one that justifies the violence of the January 6, 2021, Capitol Hill insurrection and finds humor in the violent attack on Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband. It’s getting harder and harder to resist comparisons between the GOP’s MAGA base and the Camicie Nere, the Blackshirts organized by Benito Mussolini to attack political enemies, later emulated by Adolf Hitler’s Braunhemden, or Brownshirts. Republican voters may not admire their MAGA Blackshirts, but they tolerate them and make light of their methods.

One of those methods is to discredit elections, no matter who’s expected to win. As your faith diminishes in democratic processes, it becomes less necessary to defend victory on democratic grounds. The point is no longer to win elections. The point is to hold power. If a corrupt system delivers that power, well, at least it was our side that won.

Democrats, by contrast, since 2018 have grown more confident in electoral processes, with 88 percent of them now anticipating well-run elections. As Republicans have grown more contemptuous of democratic institutions, Democrats have lent them more conspicuous support. Maybe it’s just a partisan oppositional reflex. But I’m more inclined to think Democrats have become more respectful of ordinary democratic processes out of worry that if they don’t lend them their support, no one else will.

* This article originally misstated the date range of the Pew surveys.