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Q&A: Voters “punished” candidates who pushed election fraud claims in 2022

SIEPR Senior Fellow Andrew Hall discusses new research that finds a small group of voters penalized election-denying candidates in 2022 — and could sway 2024 election results.

In the lead-up to last year’s midterm election, national surveys found that more than half of all Republicans believed that President Joe Biden had stolen his 2020 victory from former President Donald Trump. Many candidates echoed this false claim of a fraudulent election. These “election deniers” may have rallied the GOP’s base, but did they do better at the ballot box than other Republicans?

While some high-profile election deniers won their races, overall, these candidates paid a penalty, according to Andrew Hall, a professor of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business and a professor of political science at Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences. In a new working paper, Hall, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and his co-author Janet Malzahn, a predoctoral research fellow at SIEPR, find that voters “punished” election deniers last November.

Looking at hundreds of Republican candidates who ran in statewide elections across the U.S. in 2022, Hall and Malzahn find that election deniers, on average, underperformed non-deniers by more than two percentage points. “It’s not a huge number, but when elections are close, it could make a big difference,” Hall says. Even if a majority of Republicans vote for election deniers, if enough voters reject them it can swing tight races — or even the next presidential election.

Hall, who’s also a senior fellow by courtesy at the Hoover Institution, talked about these findings and what they tell us about swing voters, political polarization, and the next election.

Questions and Answers

How big a phenomenon was election denial among Republican candidates in 2022?

It was relatively widespread. In modern history we haven’t seen this many candidates explicitly talk about the outcome of the prior election being dishonest. That said, I do think some of the claims about how widespread it is might be overstated. In the data that we’re using, which covers key statewide offices — governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general, and secretary of state — we see around 35 percent of candidates across all the primaries explicitly said something about the 2020 election not being fair. It’s certainly unusual in historical terms. On the other hand, it’s not 100 percent, either.

Let’s start with the 2022 general election. How did Republicans who were election deniers do relative to those who weren’t?

We compare Republican candidates who did explicitly deny the 2020 election to ones who did not. Once we make that comparison, roughly speaking, we come out with a 2.3 percentage point penalty in terms of vote share. That is to say: If you had two Republican statewide candidates running on the same ballot, and one of them was an explicit denier of the 2020 election results and the other was not, we would predict that the one who was not would get 2.3 percentage points more vote share. It’s not a huge number, but when elections are close, it could make a big difference.

You write that that’s enough to have a real effect on a tight presidential election in 2024.

One of the things that’s wild about the electoral college system is that the popular vote margin might be a lot bigger than 2.3 percentage points, but when you zoom in on a subset of battleground states that have enough electoral college votes to swing the election, their margins are often below 2.3 percentage points. If you’re looking ahead to the 2024 election, it’s not crazy to think that the set of battleground states that determine who wins the electoral college could very well be decided by under two percentage points. In that context, 2.3 percentage points could be a pretty big deal.

In general, people who tend to come out for primary elections are more partisan. So how did election deniers do in the Republican primaries in 2022?

I will say at the outset, we can’t really answer the question; there’s just not enough data to get a really confident answer. But a candidate who explicitly rejected the 2020 election, on average, gets about two percentage points more vote share in the primary. That’s not nothing. But it’s way lower than I expected, to be honest.

There’s a school of thought which holds that candidates who take more moderate stances ultimately have an advantage. Yet you’ve written a book about how it’s getting harder to get moderates into office. And there’s an argument that as Americans become more partisan, they don’t really care what their party’s candidates think. It seems like both sides of this discussion can find something to like in your findings.

For sure. There’s this interesting almost-paradox: As things become more partisan and closer to 50/50 with lots of people locked in on either side, that small group of people who swing their vote for more moderate candidates might be smaller than they used to be, but they might be more important than they used to be. On the other hand, election denial is a pretty extreme position for a set of candidates to take. And they still won 97 percent or 98 percent as much vote share as their Republican colleagues who didn’t take these positions.

If you were a Republican candidate, campaign manager, or party chair looking ahead to 2024, what would you take away from these findings?

The results suggest pretty strongly you don’t want to nominate someone for president or any other major office in 2024 who’s making this election-denying stuff a big part of their focus because it’s really unpopular with this important set of swing voters. Those swing voters are going to matter and these races tend to be quite close. If you look at the strategies that candidates and parties take, they’re looking at optimizing a quarter of a percentage point. So to tell them that there’s this delta that’s potentially more than two percentage points, that’s a huge deal. Strategically, if you care about winning elections, I think the takeaway’s pretty clear that nominating these kinds of candidates is not a good strategy.

In 2022, some Democrats backed election deniers in the Republican primaries, expecting that they could defeat them in the general election. Do your findings vindicate that strategy?

We don’t really have any evidence that that kind of strategy matters, in the sense that Democrats’ support for those candidates probably had very little impact on their ultimate performance. But it’s a reckless strategy if you actually care about democracy to try to promote anyone who holds these views getting to within one election of being in office. We’re fortunate that there are people in both parties who are very committed to trying to restore the electoral process. But when I see Democrats actively supporting the nomination of these candidates, it’s a reminder that what’s wrong with the political system is much deeper than only Republican candidates taking these positions.

The elephant in the room, so to speak, is Trump. Will this issue stay on the table during the 2024 election just because he’s still running?

I think it’s going to be a huge deal. And I think if he is nominated, he’s going to face a significant general election penalty.

It could go the other way, though. I think you could see candidates sensing that it’s now a very weak issue for Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been very cautious. He’s implemented some election-related policies, but he doesn’t go around talking about the 2020 election very much. I think that the penalty to candidates who focus on this stuff probably will come up because primaries are, on the one hand, about finding someone who fires up the base. But they’re also about finding someone who’s electable in the general election. And Trump’s opponents, I would predict, will talk a lot about how he’s not electable in the general. And they’ll probably point to the fact that these positions are really unpopular as part of why he shouldn’t be nominated.

This interview was originally published on Feb. 16 by Stanford Graduate School of Business Insights.