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What Would a ‘Legitimate’ Biden Victory Look Like to Republicans?

This 2020 victory celebration apparently looked sinister to most Republicans. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Now that Donald Trump has been indicted for using lies about the 2020 presidential election to seek to overturn its results, it’s become a matter of grave national concern that big majorities of Republicans apparently don’t think he was lying at all. A new CNN survey shows that 69 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents do not believe “Joe Biden legitimately won enough votes to win the presidency” in 2020. It’s worth asking what if anything might have convinced them to believe Biden’s win was legitimate, if only to establish what could happen differently in 2024 to avoid another contested Democratic win — if not an attack on the Capitol.

The poll shows that 56 percent of these doubtful respondents somehow think there was “solid evidence” Biden didn’t actually win, while 44 percent base their lack of confidence in the results on “suspicion only.”

Presumably the “solid evidence” crowd bought one or more of Trump’s claims, which ranged from his unsupported assertion on Election Night that Democrats were manufacturing mail ballots to offset his early lead, to the many anecdote-based allegations of fraudulent voting and vote-counting that were uniformly exploded by the federal and state judges. These are people inclined to believe what they are told by the 45th president and closely allied conservative media.

Those who question President Biden’s legitimacy on grounds of “suspicion only” are probably either thinking of vague talk about “election irregularities” or simply don’t trust election officials and/or Democrats generally. Likely some Republicans in both categories were influenced by partisan hype before the election, notably Trump’s own claim in August of 2020 that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”

Perhaps these unspecific election deniers would have been less inclined to doubt Biden’s legitimacy if the results hadn’t been so close (roughly 44,000 votes in three states separated Trump from a victory in the Electoral College). That incredibly close margin (putting aside Biden’s really big national popular vote win by over seven million votes) means that a smidgen of fraud here and a skosh of ballot-box stuffing there might have “rigged” the result in favor of the Democrat. So if they have any control over it at all (perhaps by deploying high-risk, high-reward strategies that don’t play it safe) Democrats might want to go for broke to win big.

On the other hand, Republicans who aren’t so vague and believe in “solid evidence” of a rigged 2020 election pretty clearly accept one of several conspiracy theories about a flawed electoral system and Democratic perfidy. It’s hard to know without more detailed research which Trump lie they found most compelling, since he offered many before and after Election Day.

Perhaps they believe that in places like California, non-eligible voters (i.e., non-citizens) are allowed to vote in large numbers. After all, Trump claimed he would have won the popular vote in 2016 had it not been for illegal voting by illegal immigrants. Maybe they accept the idea that voting by any method other than in-person on Election Day is inherently shady (ignoring the fact that Republicans have traditionally used voting by mail as much as or more than Democrats), reinforcing Trump’s claim that he was counted out by made-up late-arriving ballots. Fortunately for the odds of an uncontested result in 2024, Trump and other Republicans are now encouraging their voters to “beat the far left at its own game” by banking votes early by mail or in person. Any “rigging” by voting method will be bipartisan, it seems.

Unfortunately, there are some other preconceptions by Republicans about Democrats that aren’t so easy to address. There’s a sort of ancestral white Anglo-Saxon Protestant belief that “big-city machines” controlled by Democrats use chicanery to get their voters to the polls and then to put heavy thumbs on the scales to change the results. This mythology — which goes back to lurid tales of “bosses” buying votes from Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century — is hard to shake, closely connected as it is to racial and ethnic prejudices. And speaking of prejudices, today’s conservatives continue to embrace the idea that minority voters — including immigrants — “vote themselves government benefits” in a way that creates a corrupt bargain between liberal elites and their inner-city clientele. It was exactly what Mitt Romney was talking about when he was caught on tape in 2012 warning Republicans that “47 percent” of voters are non-taxpaying parasites in the bag for the opposition. If you feel that way, then you don’t need evidence of specific irregularities to feel that any Democratic presidency is in some respects “illegitimate.”

Worse yet, there are Republicans (some of them call themselves “constitutional conservatives”) who think their preferred governing policies (e.g., free markets, low taxes, gun rights and fetal rights) came down on stone tablets from the Founders as guided by God Almighty, and should not be subject to modification by mere voters. This deeply anti-democratic strain of thinking (in that case as applied to the “right” to buy, sell and own slaves) is precisely what produced secession and then Civil War in the nineteenth century.

It need not come to that, and it’s possible less of a cliffhanger election with fewer means for contesting it (the Electoral Count Act reforms of 2022 and the Supreme Court repudiation of the independent state legislatures doctrine have taken away two of the tools Trump tried to use in 2020 to overturn the results) will at least reduce the number of Republicans who refuse to accept defeat. On the other hand, if Trump wins the GOP nomination and then returns to the White House, we may enter an era in which any Democratic electoral victory is defined as illegitimate.

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What Would a Legitimate Biden Win Look Like to Republicans?