On January 6, 2021, the American public received a startling reminder of the effects of conspiracy theories. As a direct result of President Trump’s conspiratorial rhetoric, a violent mob invaded the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election. The mob believed that the election had been “stolen” from Trump in a Democratic conspiracy to remove him from power and install Joe Biden. They believed this—believed it so strongly that they were willing to attempt an insurrection—because Trump had said so himself multiple times, including at a rally in Washington earlier that day. As a testament to Trump’s culpability, he was impeached for inciting the attack a week later, though he escaped conviction by ten votes. To be sure, it would be inaccurate to lay the blame entirely at Trump’s feet: also responsible in part were the 139 representatives who voted to dispute the electoral count, as well as the 14 senators who pledged to oppose certification of the votes before the attack, and possibly even the social media platforms that allowed the conspiracy theory to spread. But there can be no doubt that it was Trump at the center—Trump who repeated the conspiracy theory to his supporters and whose rhetoric incited them to storm the Capitol.
The 2022 elections were held over a year and a half after the insurrection, but the conspiracy theory that led to it had not died down. In fact, in June 2022 polls showed that 70% of Republicans believed Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. Trump himself was not on the ballot, but many of the Republican candidates echoed his rhetoric. Sixty percent of American voters had an election denier on their ballots, and 22% of Republicans running had denied the election’s legitimacy. The 2022 elections, then, were a time for the American voters to make their feelings known about the conspiracy theory and the destruction it caused.
In statewide elections, supporters of Trump’s false claims did poorly. In every battleground state with an election denier running for an office overseeing elections, the election denier lost. This is not to say that no election denier was victorious in 2022, but all fourteen who won a statewide election were from red states, where they will have little power to sway future national election results. This failure is not necessarily a sign of Republican voters changing their minds about the 2020 election’s legitimacy, but more probably a result of non-Republicans being more likely to vote against—or to refrain from voting for—an election denier. Indeed, the number of election deniers who won their primary elections speaks to a worrying level of acceptance of conspiratorial thinking within the Republican party. Still, the fact that these candidates tended to do poorly in the general elections shows that such rhetoric does not play well among the broader populace. Consequently, many within the Republican Party have turned on the former president, arguing that it is time for the GOP to move on from him.
One Republican who did not have a bad time was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is now a frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential primary election. DeSantis, who was always a favorite over his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist, beat him in a landslide. DeSantis, being Trump’s rival within the GOP, is not an election denier. He has, however, engaged in conspiratorial rhetoric in the past. He received national attention when he signed the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, called by opponents the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” in March. Defending the law, which prohibits elementary school teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with children below the fourth grade, DeSantis’s press secretary said that anyone in opposition to it was “probably a groomer.” This is a clear reference to the conspiracy theory that LGBTQ adults intend to “groom” impressionable children into sexual relationships through sex education. By passing the Parental Rights in Education Act, DeSantis courted supporters of the conspiracy theory, and in 2022 Floridian voters rewarded him with a landslide victory.
What is the difference, then, between Trump and DeSantis, such that the former’s endorsement of a conspiracy theory hurt him while the latter’s helped him? Part of the answer may be that Florida is a red state, so DeSantis’s only needed to convince Republicans to vote in order to achieve a landslide victory. An explicitly partisan conspiracy theory—like one alleging that Democrats stole the 2020 election, or that opponents of the Parental Rights in Education Act are trying to groom children—can serve to motivate members of both parties to vote. This will be more helpful in states that are solidly blue or red. Because there are not enough Democrats in Florida to affect the winner of the election, DeSantis’s energizing Republican voters resulted in his wide margin of victory.