In 2004, I was on the phone with John Kerry when he made the difficult decision to concede his presidential bid against then-President George W. Bush. In 2016, I was in New York with Hillary Clinton when she faced that same devastating outcome. As a lawyer for political campaigns, I often have to break it to candidates that their hard fought campaigns cannot be won and that it’s time to admit defeat. Delivering this news never gets easier, but trusting the will of the voters allows our democracy to live on.
As long as there have been elections, there have always been defeated candidates who are upset with the results and supporters who want the fight to continue. But part of running for office is preparing for the possibility of defeat. In fact, if you read virtually every candidate’s concession speech it includes an instruction to the candidate’s followers to focus on the future and not dwell on the past.
We all expected former President Donald Trump would act differently in defeat. Few expected him to be gracious or wish his opponent good luck. Still, nothing prepared us for the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.
Even before the election was held, Trump and his enablers had a plan to sow doubt in the outcome. According to former aides, his plan was to declare victory on election night and argue that vote counting should stop. Ironically, it may have been Fox News, and its early call that Arizona had gone for now-President Joe Biden, that foiled Trump’s effort.
Before the first vote was even cast in 2020, the former one-term president was undermining public confidence in election systems and results. For weeks after the election, as Trump threw a temper tantrum in courts, Republicans assured us that Trump would come to terms with his loss. We were told that, like a toddler, he just needed time. Unfortunately, Jan. 6, 2021 was not child’s play. Instead, it was a violent attempt to block the peaceful transfer of power.
Unlike his predecessors, Trump never publicly came to terms with his defeat. Instead of taking pride in having been president, he was consumed by the shame of having lost and being mocked for his childish behavior. Rather than stand up to him, the Republican Party was too cowardly to denounce his tirades and tell his conspiracy-minded supporters to acknowledge the reality that Biden had won, fair and square.
The two years that followed introduced new terms into our lexicon to explain this unique situation. The “Big Lie” became shorthand for Trump’s repeated false assertions that he had won the election. “Election deniers” became a term for die-hard Trump supporters who not only believed the “Big Lie,” but also evangelized it.
As the 2022 election campaigns began, it became clear that election denialism had transformed itself from a false view of history into a political movement for the future. In state after state, Republican candidates campaigned on a platform of changing, or at least denying, the outcome of the 2020 election.
As we approached the midterm elections, many of us who care about democracy, its institutions and its norms worried about how these candidates would perform at the polls and act if elected. We discussed the possibility that, if these candidates were to lose, they would falsely claim their own election defeats were the result of fraud. We quietly feared that they might provoke violence reminiscent of Jan. 6, 2021.
Thankfully, that did not come to pass. The election deniers running for governor and secretary of state in key battleground states all lost. Many of those running for other offices lost as well. Despite irresponsible calls to action by Trump and others, most of these losing candidates have accepted their defeat quietly, if not graciously. We have not seen the wave of frivolous litigation that marred the 2020 post-election era.
There will be many theories as to why election deniers lost. Here is my initial take.
After the experience of 2020, voters became more attuned to the threat of election subversion. Indeed, the term “election subversion” was only added to the general lexicon in 2021. Political and civic leaders spoke out loudly and forcefully about the dire long-term consequences to electing election deniers. For some, like me, reminding the public of the threat posed by these candidates became a near daily obsession.
Thankfully, it appears that pro-democracy voters responded and turned out in record numbers. Combating the “Big Lie” and protecting the future of free and fair elections seems to have been motivating for millions of voters nationwide. By the time polls closed on Nov. 8, 2022, a staggering 68% of voters believed that democracy in the United States was at risk in the election. An electorate worried about the erosion of democracy was not going to elect a Kari Lake or a Doug Mastriano, whose campaigns relied heavily on election denialism.
This doesn’t explain, of course, why so many of these Trump-inspired candidates failed to follow his lead by waging pointless legal fights after their elections were called. Once again, I have initial thoughts.
First, public sentiment is sharply against them. Despite two years of lies, this year’s exit polls show that the public has confidence in the accuracy of elections. According to these polls, only 19% believe that elections in their state were not fair and accurate. While not impossible, it is harder for defeated candidates to tell lies about their elections when public opinion is already set against them.
Second, these candidates and their attorneys saw the results of Trump’s post-election litigation strategy as a warning sign. While these candidates saw value in using the 2020 litigation outcomes as a political tool to rally their base to vote, they seem less eager to suffer the same humiliating defeat in their own races. Lawyers for these candidates look at the fate suffered by the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis — each of whom is now a laughing stock and punchline — and are more circumspect about what cases they will bring or crazy claims they will make.
Finally, it is also clear that these campaigns have awoken after the 2020 election and realized that insisting their supporters only vote in person on Election Day contributed to their own losses. It is notable that after her defeat, Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake took to the airwaves to complain about voters having to wait in long Election Day lines, calling it “voter suppression.” She is right, of course, to criticize long wait times to vote. But claiming voter suppression — rather than non-existent fraud — is not something “Big Lie” advocates are predisposed to litigate.
In the end, if there is one outcome that is undeniable about the midterm elections, it is that election deniers lost. But what about next time? Was 2022 the high-water mark for election denier candidates or just a setback for a renewed attack on democracy in 2024?
While we should savor the victories, there is reason to be concerned about the future. Despite setbacks for the highest profile election denier candidates, some did prevail. Candidates who won, like the new Wyoming Secretary of State-elect Chuck Gray and South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, still represent an erosion of democracy in those states.
Also, in U.S. House and Senate races, we saw several election deniers win election and re-election. From Ohio, J.D. Vance will make the Republican Senate conference even more anti-democratic. And the House GOP is nearly entirely composed of election deniers and “Big Lie” advocates.
Most importantly, 2024 will be a presidential election year and Republicans continue to struggle with winning a majority of the electorate. By then, it will have been 20 years since a Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote. The need for Republicans to walk the increasingly narrow political high wire of winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote will pressure them towards disenfranchising key portions of the electorate. Disenfranchising voters is the entry point for what eventually becomes election subversion and election denialism.
This next presidential election will be made worse by a Republican primary that will undoubtedly be shaped by Trump’s insistence on promoting election denying claims. People like Steve Bannon and Fox News personalities have already created an ecosystem dependent on amplifying these lies around the clock. If the Republican Party again nominates Trump or another advocate of the “Big Lie,” we will see the GOP and its allies launch an even more ferocious attack on our elections in the next election cycle.
Even if an eventual opponent to Trump prevails, they are likely to merely quibble with his continued reliance on the issue, rather than call out the “Big Lie” for what it is — a very big lie. For the immediate future, the GOP is bound to Trump’s false narrative about 2020 and his insistence that the system remains rigged against him. Until that changes, the fight against election denialism will likely need to remain front and center in our politics.
In short, we can be hopeful, but we must remain vigilant. In 1814, John Adams wrote to Virginian John Taylor that “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.” In 2022, we dodged Adams’ somber prediction. Only by continuing to fight for free and fair elections can we do so again in the future.