Over a month since Joe Biden was declared President-Elect — since it became clear beyond even a sliver of a doubt that President Donald Trump had fallen many states short of being reelected — a hefty chunk of Americans have simply rejected that reality.
They’ve crafted new slogans like “stop the steal” as shorthand for this alternate universe, been glued to hearings where baseless voter fraud accusations are exchanged like COVID-19 infections around Trump’s orbit.
While this collective delusion is bizarre and worrying to anyone who doesn’t mainline OAN, Newsmax and Fox News’ primetime lineup, it may have a more pointed real-world effect than gradual democratic decay.
Ahead of Georgia’s Jan. 5, 2021 runoff election for two U.S. Senate seats, pollsters, political scientists and the campaigns themselves are hungry for proof of causation: if these people believe that our election system is so rotted that a presidential election can be stolen, will they opt out of voting in the runoff altogether? Some conspiracy theory-minded, Trump-adjacent Republicans, including celebrity lawyer Lin Wood, have urged Georgia voters to boycott the elections outright.
Whether voters take heed is an x-factor that could have the power to swing the elections, and thereby decide control of the Senate — influencing, in turn, the Biden administration’s effectiveness and the legislative landscape of the next two years. Incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA) have gone to great lengths to balance maintaining Trump’s support by agreeing that the election was rigged while imploring Republicans to turn out. Perdue in particular has favored referring to them as the “last line of defense” preventing the Democrats from getting free rein to enforce their “socialist” agenda.
But as the runoff looms, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s no real way to measure the Trump deadender faction due to some of the same reasons that Trump supporters are so hard to poll in general. The Jan. 5, 2021 election will simply be a massive experiment.
“There’s really no way to derive this empirically,” G. Elliot Morris, a data journalist and election modeler at The Economist, told TPM.
Without high-level private data — the kind campaigns are sometimes privy to — it’s probably not possible to quantify the group that is still disheartened out of voting in the runoff, agreed Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. That big question mark, he added, has the power to swing an election that boils down to turnout.
“Who drops out of the electorate may be just as important as who shows up,” he said.
So What Do We Know?
There are now plenty of examples of individual Georgians declaring the entire electoral system in their state to be corrupt. But the best way to try to figure out the size of this “rigged” election contingent, and how it plans to vote in January, are polls.
But so far, only one publicly available Georgia runoff poll has asked the question in the context of runoff voting intentions. SurveyUSA, which conducted the poll for an NBC affiliate in Atlanta from November 27 to November 30, asked a pool of 118 registered voters who said they were not likely to vote in the runoffs why they weren’t planning to participate.
Of that group, 13 percent said they would opt out because “the voting process was rigged.”
But the sample size is too small to draw any clear conclusions. “To make the math explicit, if 13 percent of respondents tell us that they think elections are rigged, that is 15 total respondents — not particularly more valuable than interviewing 15 people on the street corner,” Jay Leve, CEO of SurveyUSA, told TPM.
And even that little nugget of data, Leve said, may already be out of date by now, several days later. For one thing, GOP lawmakers seem to be coalescing behind Trump. Leve described the “collective psychological emergency in America” where he sees the baseless conviction amid Republicans that the election was stolen growing stronger, even when court after court rejects Trump’s attempts to prove mass fraud.
At the same time, Leve said he suspects that few of those “rigged election” Republicans will choose not to vote in the runoff, especially after Trump called on them to vote during a Georgia campaign stop last week.
“It’s hard to believe there is an America with systemic election fraud, and that America continues to function as a representative democracy,” Leve said. “Those two things are at profound odds.”
But it’s possible, he theorized, that even Republicans truly believing that they were cheated out of a November win hope that the strength of their vote may help overwhelm attempts to steal the runoff.
Others agreed with that theory. “My hunch is that the ‘rigged election!!!’ people still aren’t nihilistic enough to not turn out to vote,” Morris said. “They will probably be motivated enough by their anger at Biden/Dems to turn out anyway, perhaps with the rationale that ‘well, if fraud DOESN’T happen, I don’t want to be the one vote that prevents Loeffler/Purdue from winning.’”
A complicating factor in a complicated situation is the polling blindspots revealed in 2016 and confirmed in 2020.
“We just came out of an election where pollsters understated the Trump vote,” Leve said. “We came out of the election with the takeaway that Trump’s four-year drumbeat about fake media has toxic consequences to polls conducted by media outlets.”
Most polls, including his Georgia one, involve partnership with news outlets.
That could compound the chronic problem of Trump voters being missed in polling and make it even harder to capture what they’re thinking now. Some data experts, including Morris, point to the “low social trust” theory to explain why enthusiasm for Trump was missed in the polls multiple times. It contends that people who like Trump are generally less likely to trust institutions and less inclined to voice their beliefs — making them less likely to talk to a pollster. If they’re already primed to avoid pollsters, finding out that the survey is being conducted by an outlet Trump taught them to hate and distrust would likely only alienate them further.
Runoff Polling Is Already Tricky
All of these “hurricane winds,” as Leve described them, only serve to further blur a picture that is historically hard to capture.
Runoffs are difficult to poll even in the best of times. And that makes them expensive.
“Runoff polling, which like primary polling typically has a smaller turnout than general elections, is very expensive because it’s hard to find the actual voters,” Leve said.
Many outlets, Leve added, don’t budget for such polling especially because Georgia is in a small minority of states that have the weird months-later runoff system. After polling impeachment, a pandemic, racial justice protests and a general election including a presidential contest and a slew of competitive Senate races, many outlets are just tapped.
That means a paucity of polling of the Georgia runoffs, despite the critical importance of the races.
FiveThirtyEight currently has seven polls in its aggregate, of which SurveyUSA’s is the only one with an “A” rating. Leve told TPM that his firm will poll the Georgia runoffs once more before the election; the results are slated to publish on Christmas Eve. In that poll, as a result of TPM’s questions, he will rearrange some “rigged election” queries to get a better snapshot of how Georgians are thinking.
But other than that, Leve doesn’t expect a whole lot of polls to come out of the state in the remaining few weeks until the election — not least because of the deadtime of Christmas and New Years.
In 25 days, Georgia will decide who controls the Senate and the profound domino effects that come with that decision. It’s a race nearly as consequential as the presidential one, and will be the first indication of the endurance of Trump’s post-presidency power. But the enthusiasm of his voters, and the extent to which his conspiracy mongering has infected the electorate, remains an unquantifiable force.
“We’re in uncharted waters,” sighed Leve.