USA Politics

Why 52 percent of Republicans say Donald Trump won the popular vote

Despite ample evidence and media coverage to the contrary, more than half of all Republicans believe Donald Trump won the popular vote in the presidential election, according to an online poll. 

A supporter holds up a President-elect Donald Trump big hand during a rally at the Ladd–Peebles Stadium on Dec. 17, 2016, in Mobile, Ala.
Brynn Anderson/AP
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More than half of all Republicans believe Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, according to a new poll. 

Fifty-two percent of all Republicans surveyed online think the president-elect won the popular vote, despite ample evidence and media coverage to the contrary, Qualtrics found. The popular vote was, in fact, won by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, whose lead over Mr. Trump has passed 2.8 million votes and continues to grow. 

"These results align with something social scientists have long recognized: We choose facts to be consistent with our prior beliefs," write Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Tom Wood, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University, for The Washington Post. "In this case, Republicans are more likely to endorse erroneous claims about Trump’s victory because it aligns with their partisanship." 

The poll highlights a common theme throughout the 2016 presidential election lamented by those on both sides of the partisan aisle: a widespread rejection of facts in favor of ideas that confirm one's own pre-existing political bias. The phenomenon, reflected in a record high distrust of the mainstream media and the proliferation of fake news on social media, has been exacerbated by the candidacy of Donald Trump, who, since the start of his campaign last year has made frequent false claims and emotional appeals to his supporters while denouncing facts as conspiracies concocted by the other side. 

So common was the rejection of facts in 2016 that Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" the Word of the Year, as Weston Williams reported for The Christian Science Monitor

Often used in a political context, it is easy to see why post-truth became a defining word of the year, with emotional appeals fueling a surge of right-wing movements across the world.... In the United States, President-elect Donald Trump's upset victory was driven by emotional appeals, even as critics of the candidate pointed to various objective inconsistencies, factual errors, and outright falsehoods made by Mr. Trump as a way to disqualify him from the presidency.

But the term "post-truth" may ultimately point to a fundamental shift in how objective truth is interpreted in the 21st century. With the collective knowledge of human civilization at our fingertips through the internet, information is no longer the purview of an intellectual elite, as it has been throughout most of history. With this democratization of information, however, comes the problem of an oversaturation of information by anyone with an opinion on the facts to the point where it becomes harder to determine what is true and what is merely the product of someone's political agenda.

The phenomenon of "post-truth" politics isn't unique to the United States, as William Davies, an associate professor in political economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, points out in an August op-ed for The New York Times. He cites as an example Leave's argument in the Brexit referendum that European Union membership cost Britain 350 million pounds a week, while failing to account for the money received in return. 

"How can we still be speaking of 'facts' when they no longer provide us with a reality that we all agree on?" Professor Davies wrote. "The problem is that the experts and agencies involved in producing facts have multiplied, and many are now for hire. If you really want to find an expert willing to endorse a fact, and have sufficient money or political clout behind you, you probably can." 

But false facts can have enormous influence even when there are no experts, legitimate media sources, or political clout behind the statements, as evidenced by an explosion of fake news on social media throughout the 2016 election. While conducting interviews with readers and sharers of fake news earlier this month, the Monitor found that while some fans insisted on the integrity of the fake news sites, others said it didn't matter to them whether the stories were real or not, as long as the "news" confirmed their prior perceptions.

"This is exactly what psychology literature on the topic would say. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we expose ourselves to select information so we feel good about ourselves," Clare Wadel, research director at First Draft, a nonprofit that advocates for truth in the digital sphere, told the Monitor. "When people on Facebook write 'My sources say…' it proves they are not looking for objective truth in the middle. Sources that are 'mine' will give me information to reaffirm what I already think." 

Earlier this month, one fake news story almost resulted in violence when a man brought a semiautomatic rifle into a Washington, D.C., pizzeria in an attempt to "self-investigate" a popular – and entirely false – conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief had been running a child sex ring out of the restaurant.

The misconception among Republicans that the majority of Americans voted for Trump could also have real-life results on an even larger scale, Professors Oliver and Wood note. Amid speculation that the electoral college could refuse to make Trump president, a primary argument of Trump's opponents is Clinton's widening lead in the popular vote. 

"Many Democrats hope this fact alone might persuade Republican electors to reject Trump in favor of some alternative," they write. But "if the Republican electors are anything like the party rank and file, they may think voting for Trump is in line with the choices of the American people." 

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