The 2024 presidential election is on the horizon, but we just can’t seem to leave 2020 behind. Former President Donald Trump was indicted and arraigned this week on charges related to efforts to overturn that electoral outcome. At the same time, primary polls indicate that Trump and President Joe Biden are by far the most likely to represent their parties once more in next year’s general election.
Perhaps, then, it makes sense that arguably the No. 1 predictor of vote choice for the Republican nomination is whether voters view the 2020 election as legitimate.
It turns out that Trump’s ability to convince a large swath of the Republican base that Biden’s win was illegitimate is paying major dividends as he seeks the GOP nomination for a third time.
We know that poll after poll has shown that roughly two-thirds of Republican voters believe the falsehood that Biden’s win was somehow not legit. Our latest CNN/SSRS poll, conducted in July, found that 71% of registered Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters think Biden’s win was illegitimate compared to 27% who think it was legitimate. A comparable 67% said it was illegitimate in our May survey, while 31% said it was legitimate.
This May poll also asked voters who they preferred to be the 2024 GOP nominee. Trump pulled in 64% of the vote among those who thought the 2020 election was illegitimate. That dropped to a mere 27% among those who thought Biden’s win was legitimate, which puts the change in Trump’s support based on this question at 37 points. (A March CNN poll had the change in support at 35 points.)
Put another way, Trump had a 39-point lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis among the group who believed his loss was illegitimate in the May poll. He was even with DeSantis among the much smaller group that said Trump’s 2020 loss was legitimate.
To put in perspective how much of a dividing line thoughts on the 2020 election are on the GOP primary, look at how education (normally the most predictive demographic variable) correlates with backing Trump. Trump was up 35 points among those without a college degree and up 14 points among those without one in May. That 21-point difference is only about half of what we see on the 2020 legitimacy question.
The fact that Trump does so much better among those who believe he lost illegitimately makes a lot of sense. One of Trump’s biggest selling points is that he is a winner. If a Republican voter thinks Trump’s a loser, then of course they’ll be far more likely to go with another candidate.
It matches, too, with what we saw after the 2022 elections. Republicans had one of the worst performances for an opposition party during a midterm, despite Biden’s low approval rating. They lost a lot of key races where Trump-backed candidates greatly underperformed, so it was a time when Trump could be seen as an electoral loser.
This data makes me ask: Why are many of Trump’s Republican opponents trying to ignore the clear elephant in the room? No matter how many times a Republican wants to argue this race is about the future, it is very clearly about the past.
GOP candidates and the Republican Party apparatus have allowed Trump to sell what is factually a fantasy to Republican voters. These voters have eaten it up and, in return, rewarded Trump with a large primary lead.
This leaves Trump’s Republican opponents with two choices.
First, they could try to convince a significant portion of voters who think Trump has never lost an election and was wrongly denied a second term to vote against him for some reason.
Second, they could make the argument that Trump is a loser and did, in fact, lose in 2020 and would lose again in 2024. This is something DeSantis recently started to do. He will likely do it more often, as he charts his comeback.
Neither of the aforementioned choices seems like a particularly easy case to make given where the GOP base is at this point – which is why Trump remains a clear favorite to win the Republican nomination yet again.