The Electoral Impact of Election Denial

With few exceptions, majorities in both parties have historically accepted presidential election results. But that changed in the 2020 Presidential election cycle, when President Trump claimed the election would be stolen amid ballot counting delays. His conspiracy theories reduced Republican confidence in American elections to historic lows and led 147 Congressional Republicans to vote to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. Trump’s suggestions of election fraud culminated in the January 6th attack on the Capitol, threatening a peaceful transition of power.

Support for election denial remains common among Republican lawmakers today — a sign of former President Trump’s rhetorical hold on the GOP. In 2022, 34 Republican nominees in Senate and House battlegrounds (defined as seats either won by Biden or Trump by less than ten points in 2020, or seats that were won by the opposite party in 2022 House elections) denied President Biden’s victory in public statements. Taking this position has had significant electoral repercussions for this small, but significant, group of Republicans.

Election denial is unpopular with the electorate, especially in battleground seats where voters are made most aware of candidates’ stances on the issues. In all five battleground races for Secretary of State, proponents of conspiracy theories regarding the 2020 election underperformed by an average of 7 points. Republican election deniers in competitive races for Senate and Governor only worsened the GOP’s ongoing candidate quality problems.

Additionally, using our Wins Above Replacement (WAR) scores, we can quantify the penalty Republicans paid for election denial in federal races. Battleground GOP nominees who denied the validity of the 2020 election had a median WAR score of –2.1, meaning that they underperformed by two points even after controlling for factors like statewide environment, fundraising, and incumbency. Meanwhile, battleground Republicans who fully accepted the election results actually overperformed by 1.7 points, suggesting the electability delta between the two camps was roughly four points in margin.

The WAR scores of candidates who fully denied results and candidates who fully accepted them. The red line denotes the median performance of the group, while the edges of the purple box denote the 25th and 75th percentile performances.

This is supported by data from the New York Times, which suggests that the “MAGA penalty” was five points, and from Catalist, which suggests that the penalty for election deniers in highly contested House races was roughly three points in margin compared to non-deniers. It is important to note that there is some variance here, because the dynamics of each election are different. Accepting Biden’s victory did not guarantee overperformance, and a few deniers like Mike Garcia still overperformed. This may be because the WAR metric measures the relative performances of both candidates: a race featuring an election denier facing another unideal candidate will yield a less substantial underperformance figure. But the magnitude and scope of the set suggests a clear story reinforced by every data lens applied to this topic: election denial was broadly toxic and correlated strongly with electoral underperformance.

It is important to note that candidates denying the election often took other unpopular positions on issues such as abortion: readers should note that these stances could also induce underperformances. But we think that this simply adds to the case regarding the inelectability of extremism. In 2022, Donald Trump made election denial a de facto requirement for his endorsement, elevating controversial Republicans in multiple battleground Senate primaries with his king-making primary endorsement. Many of these candidates, like Blake Masters and Herschel Walker, exhibited no message discipline on key, hot-button issues. The November results showed that this had huge electoral costs.

Overall, election deniers clearly contributed to an underwhelming midterm performance for Republicans. Blake Masters, Herschel Walker, and Adam Laxalt all underperformed in winnable Senate races by enough to yield their races to Democratic incumbents. Certainly, election denial was not the sole factor costing the GOP victories in Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada, but it certainly did not make their nominees more palatable. Instead of losing a seat in a favorable environment, Republicans could have taken control of the Senate if they had just closed the margin by three percent in Georgia and Nevada, a margin well within the difference between election-accepting and election-denying performances.

The story in the House was similar. Election deniers lost in five battleground districts, including Washington’s 3rd, where Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez won by less than one point. Had Republicans nominated more mainline candidates in these seats, they could have secured a more comfortable House majority, making it easier to elect Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House.

It should be noted that the branding issues election denial brings are not limited to the candidates parroting such rhetoric: when a party label becomes code for conspiracy and extremism, mainstream and moderate candidates also bear the brunt of voter retribution. Such factors may have contributed to the overall Republican underperformance in the midterms, where large swaths of independents and moderates who disapproved of Biden still voted for Democrats.

Ultimately, Republicans have a clear road map to victory when they nominate mainstream candidates who focus on common-sense concerns. Nominees hyper-fixated on tailoring their platforms to fit Trump’s election denial conspiracy theories have paid significant penalties and could continue costing the GOP in battleground states and districts.

*Footnotes: To determine whether a candidate fully denied or fully accepted the election results, we relied primarily on FiveThirtyEight’s database.

%d bloggers like this: