Polling is so problematic these days, especially where Republicans and conservatives are concerned, that one shouldn’t take the data they report at face value. Did you know that when you see a poll reported, it might be that only 1 in 90 people the pollster originally contacted even responded? And it gets worse from there: It might also be that those who do respond can plainly see or believe they can discern rank political motivation behind the questions they are being asked and therefore answer in a way that more reflects their own sense of their partisan loyalties than what they might genuinely believe.
The story of 2020 polling was a story of how Democrats and liberals were wildly overrepresented, and Republicans and conservatives undercounted and misunderstood. There’s no reason to think any of that changed once the election was over. The non-Democrats to whom pollsters speak are no longer chosen at random; they are self-selected, self-aware, and rare, and they want to deliver a message: I’m not playing your game.
Here’s an analogy: Let’s say a pollster asked a faithful Jew whether he believed the entirety of the Torah was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai—a central Jewish belief that is extraordinarily difficult for modern Jews to accept given that the entirety of the Torah features the chronicle of Moses’s actions and death after he was on Mt. Sinai. Would that Jew own up to the pollster about his problems with the idea, or would he answer the question in accord with the dictates of his tradition—especially if the Jew in question thought that maybe the pollster was hostile to his faith?
All this is to say I have no idea how many Republicans actually believe the 2020 election was stolen. Nor does anyone else. Throughout the weeks following the election we have been treated to media coverage that has focused obsessively on Donald Trump’s claims of election theft while professing horror at those very claims. The coverage itself seems designed both to terrify and outrage everyone thrilled at the results, as if to reinforce the righteousness and virtue of their vote to oust Trump. And it has succeeded.
It has also succeeded in helping Trump freeze the Republican Party in place, which is where he needs it to be if he is to keep his options open for the future. Trump’s behavior following the election has been execrable on a human level—if there can be a model for gracelessness, he’s it—but once again he has shown extraordinary animal cunning in refusing to concede.
His essential argument, once you get past the nonsense lawsuits and the utterly mendacious claims, is that in a world in which Republicans and conservatives were treated “fairly,” he would have won. Forget the fact that he won in 2016 under exactly the same conditions; he has. His refusal to concede on the implicit grounds of unfairness brilliantly tapped a vein of resentful thought on the right that is entirely justified. The media are biased. They do not give right-of-center views and politicians and arguments a fair shake. They are complicit in efforts like those by social-media giants at the end of the campaign to suppress news stories harmful to Joe Biden.
A pollster who calls a Republican who is willing to talk is calling someone who has decades’ worth of legitimate grievance against a prevailing media narrative that belittles his views, his way of life, even his skin color. That person may choose to answer the question in a manner that does the greatest damage to the pollster’s suppositions—and that seems to elevate his own side of the divide. Saying that Joe Biden is illegitimate does damage to the American experiment, and it is a frightening portent for our future. But the people who say it feel like they have been delegitimized. And they’re not wrong.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.