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Here’s How the Election Deniers Are Performing in the Polls—and Why

A deep dive into the public opinion surveys.
October 21, 2022
Here’s How the Election Deniers Are Performing in the Polls—and Why
(Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

In several crucial states, candidates who have claimed or suggested that the 2020 election was stolen are close to becoming governors. In Arizona, Republican Kari Lake is narrowly leading Democrat Katie Hobbs. In Wisconsin, Republican Tim Michels is within half a percentage point of Gov. Tony Evers. And in Michigan, the last four polls put challenger Tudor Dixon within six points of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

If these candidates were to win on Nov. 8, they’d control the certification of 36 pivotal Electoral College votes in 2024. If they were to be joined by Doug Mastriano, who trails in Pennsylvania but is polling above 40 percent, they’d control 55 electoral votes. Together, they could deliver the 2024 presidential election to Donald Trump, who is polling neck and neck in a hypothetical rematch with Joe Biden.

How is this happening? What the hell is going on?

Here’s what we can glean from recent polls. Let’s start with the good news: Most voters in these states don’t think the 2020 election was stolen. Two months ago in Pennsylvania, 49 percent of registered voters said “election officials in Pennsylvania correctly counted the state’s vote in the 2020 Presidential election”; 41 percent said they didn’t. In Arizona, 53 percent of voters said they were extremely or very confident that “the votes in Arizona were cast legitimately and counted accurately”; only 28 percent said they weren’t confident at all. Last month in Michigan, 54 percent of likely voters said “Joe Biden won the election fair and square”; only 35 percent chose the alternative answer, “Joe Biden and Democrats stole the election from Donald Trump.” And in Wisconsin, 61 percent of voters said Biden was “the legitimate winner”; only 26 percent said Trump was the legitimate winner.

The bad news is that candidates who peddle the stolen-election myth are polling well above those numbers. In the Arizona survey, taken for Fox News, Lake drew 44 percent of the vote. In the Wisconsin poll, taken for Spectrum News, Michels also drew 44 percent. In the Michigan poll, taken for the Detroit Free Press, Dixon got 40 percent. Since then, all three candidates have risen. In the latest FiveThirtyEight poll averages, Dixon is at 42 percent, and Michels and Lake are at 47 percent.

In other words, many people who don’t think the election was stolen are supporting candidates who claim or imply that it was.

Why? Because they don’t think lying about the election is disqualifying. And many of them don’t care about these lies at all.

Look at the latest New York Times national poll, published on Tuesday. In that survey, 40 percent of registered voters said they wouldn’t be comfortable “at all” supporting a candidate who, while agreeing with the respondent on most other issues, said “the 2020 election was stolen.” That leaves 60 percent of the electorate in play. Fourteen percent said they’d be “not too” comfortable supporting such a candidate, 21 percent said they’d be somewhat comfortable, and 18 percent said they’d be very comfortable.

In Arizona, where Lake and her Republican ticket-mates are parroting Trump’s lies about the election, a CBS News survey taken earlier this month found similar results. When registered voters were asked what kind of “elected officials” they preferred, only 41 percent said they wanted officials who “say Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.” Eighteen percent said they wanted officials who said Biden did not legitimately win. The remaining 41 percent chose the poll’s third option: “doesn’t matter either way.”

The “doesn’t matter” bloc is decisive. It gives Lake and her ticket-mates a receptive audience of about 60 percent. She’s already in the mid- to high 40s, with room to grow.

Among independent voters—the people who will probably decide who wins these races—the “doesn’t matter” factor is even bigger. In Arizona, 46 percent of independents said it doesn’t matter whether their elected officials say Biden did or didn’t win legitimately. And across the four states, in every survey that asks about “the 2020 election” or “voting and election issues generally,” independents are less likely than Democrats or Republicans to say these issues are very important when choosing whom to vote for.

In fact, among the 12 issues polled by CBS News in the four states—inflation, abortion, crime, etc.—“January 6th events and investigation” is often the lowest-rated topic among independents. The percentage of independents who say this subject is unimportant or “not too important” in casting their ballots exceeds (or in some cases comes close to exceeding) the percentage who express such indifference to any other subject.

This year, the House January 6th Committee has held nine televised hearings on the Jan. 6th attack and the plots leading up to it. But in August, after eight of those hearings, 56 percent of independent voters in Pennsylvania (and 43 percent of Pennsylvania voters overall) said they had watched none of them. The poll, taken by Franklin & Marshall College, also asked respondents how much they had “learned about the events of January sixth based on the Select Committee’s investigation.” Forty-five percent of Pennsylvania voters said “not much” or “nothing at all.”

The F&M poll found that Republican smears had hardened about half the electorate against the committee. When Pennsylvania voters were asked whether the committee’s work was “mostly an attempt to find the truth” or “mostly an attempt to damage Donald Trump’s reputation,” only 47 percent said it was about finding the truth. Forty-five percent said it was about hurting Trump.

All of this helps Mastriano, who is up to his eyeballs in election denial and complicity in the coup attempt. In September, when F&M asked Pennsylvania voters whether Mastriano had “attended the January 6th events in Washington,” only 46 percent answered, correctly, that it was definitely true. Seventeen percent said it was “probably” true, seven percent said it was false or probably false, and 31 percent said they didn’t know.

Lake, Dixon, and Mastriano do have an image problem. Voters in their states are significantly more likely to rate them as “extreme” than to say the same about their Democratic opponents. But if you’re one of those Democratic opponents, it’s often easier to make the extremism case by focusing on an issue other than election denial.

In Michigan, for instance, 38 percent of likely voters say the “January 6th events and investigation” are very important as an issue in the midterms. But many more, 62 percent, say abortion is very important. Last month, a survey taken for the Free Press found that Whitmer’s attacks on Dixon for spreading lies about the election were a net positive for the governor by about 20 percentage points. (Thirty-six percent of likely Michigan voters said these attacks made them less likely to support Dixon; 15 percent said the attacks made them more likely to support Dixon.) But Whitmer’s attacks on Dixon for abortion extremism were a net positive for the governor by more than 30 points. So Whitmer is better off talking about abortion than about the election lies.

The best way to make election denial a potent issue might be to project the issue forward. In the CBS News Arizona poll—the one in which only 41 percent of voters said they wanted public officials who “say Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election”—there was much greater consensus on future elections. Seventy-seven percent of voters said they preferred a governor who “accepts the results of Arizona elections, whoever wins,” not one who would “challenge and investigate Arizona elections” when her party loses.

That could be a problem for Lake. In a CNN interview last Sunday, she was repeatedly asked whether, if she were to lose, she would accept the outcome. She declined to say yes. Instead, she twice replied, “I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result.”

Democrats have little more than two weeks to stop Lake from becoming Arizona’s next governor. They’re also in trouble down the ballot and in races against election deniers in other states. They need to make election denial a more salient issue. But maybe they should focus that conversation on the next election, not the last one.

Correction (October 21, 2022, 9 a.m. EDT): As originally published, a sentence in this article misstated the FiveThirtyEight polling average for Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels. The sentence has been fixed to show that Michels, as of this writing, stands at 47 percent, not 44 percent.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.