When former President Donald Trump takes the stage at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, he’ll do so as the still-unquestioned leader of the Republican Party.
Yet at the annual gathering of conservative activists, his signature issue — perpetuating the lie that the 2020 election was stolen — has been placed firmly on the backburner.
During last year’s event, held months after Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden, CPAC held a seven-part panel series on “protecting elections.” This year’s conference agenda featured one event devoted to 2020, election administration and voting laws, though it was not openly advertised as such.
The lack of attention devoted to the issue Trump has pushed to make a defining one in this year’s midterms at the prominent gathering of his most faithful supporters is far from the only indicator that broader Republican interest may be dwindling.
Recent polling, candidate fundraising numbers and actions of Republican statehouse leaders have suggested that while Trump continues to fixate on 2020, others have moved on or would like to do so — and that some in the GOP have found a limit to their tolerance of the election denial antics of Trump allies.
A Morning Consult/Politico survey released this month found 50 percent of GOP voters want to move on from talking about 2020, with just 37 percent saying they want to keep their attention on it — though the same poll found that a majority of Republican’s support Trump’s focus on the past presidential election. A separate Quinnipiac University poll released this month found 52 percent of Republicans said they agree with former Vice President Mike Pence over Trump on the former being able to overturn the election last January. Just 36 percent agree more with Trump.
And search interest in phrases such as election fraud, voter fraud and other key phrases has trended downward over the past year.
Charlie Black, a longtime Republican lobbyist, told NBC News that “except for a small group,” Republican voters “don’t care about 2020 anymore.”
“If you look at Trump’s polling among Republicans, it has been going down all year,” he said. “And the more he rants and raves about the election being stolen, the more it’ll keep going down. If he did want to run again, he’s got to shut that up and start talking about the future, but he’s not.”
Recent polls of the still far-off 2024 GOP primary show Trump with a substantial lead over any prospective rival, but they also show a primary electorate that is split between wanting Trump and wanting someone else.
Trump appears to be disregarding warning signs about the election fraud narrative’s standing among GOP voters.
Calling in to Fox News on Wednesday night as Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Trump said: “It happened because of a rigged election.”
Just this month, the former president has released numerous statements making false claims of fraud.
An adviser who spoke directly to Trump about his focus on the fraud claims said not to expect him to tone down his approach any time soon.
“Look, nothing is going to shut him up about it,” this person said. “He believes it. So he’s gonna talk about it.”
A second adviser said the former president and his team is paying close attention to how the fraud focus polls.
“Is it a consideration now? No. Will it become one? Yes,” this person said. “We’re watching the numbers come down on the issue. And that’s something he pays attention to.”
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
“I think people are looking to other people to be the leaders and every day he is diminishing,” former Rep. Barbara Comstock, who spoke at a conference of anti-Trump Republicans in Washington, D.C, this weekend, said in an interview. “It’s just gotten ridiculous. Even people who might buy into some of it are like, ‘Yeah, I gotta move on.'”
While Republicans in Congress and on the trail have focused more in recent months on issues like crime, inflation and education, the issue could still have an outsize impact in crowded GOP primary fields where candidates can win with a plurality of the vote. At CPAC on Friday, Josh Mandel, a contender in the wide-open Senate primary in Ohio, said “I believe this election was stolen from Donald J. Trump,” to loud cheers.
At the moment, Republican-led state legislatures are considering a new round of changes to election laws. And there are still investigations into the previous presidential election ongoing in key presidential battleground states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
But limits have been on display. In Wisconsin, GOP statehouse leaders last month rejected an effort to retract the state’s 10 electoral votes, with the state Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, a Republican, tweeting that the resolution to do so was “plain unconstitutional” and that “there is ZERO chance I will advance this illegal resolution.”
State Rep. Timothy Ramthun, who introduced that resolution, is now running for governor.
And in Arizona, which has been ground zero for the election denial movement, Republican state House Speaker Rusty Bowers, a Republican, thwarted a bill that would have allowed lawmakers to reject election results. Soon after, he diminished an effort from state Rep. Mark Finchem, the Trump-backed candidate for secretary of state, to “decertify” the election in counties Biden won.
Bowers, who is now running for a state Senate seat, called Finchem’s effort “obviously unconstitutional and profoundly unwise.”
In Pennsylvania, a state President Joe Biden narrowly won over Trump in 2020, GOP gubernatorial candidate Melissa Hart said in an interview that there is a clear split between voters who are concerned with “election integrity” and those who harbor the futile hope that Biden’s victory can still be overturned.
“Some people, their top issue is vote integrity. The concerns are still there,” she said. “Now there are fewer people who address the specific issue of the vote and trying to overturn the election. That’s not something that I’m interested in.”
Recent campaign finance reports, in addition to polling in key races, show there might be limits on the fraud narrative, too. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp has millions more in his war chest than challenger David Perdue, who Trump has backed in hopes of ousting the Republican governor who certified the state’s vote. Kemp is leading Perdue in recent polling, as well.
Meanwhile, while Finchem has outraised both of the Democrats vying for Arizona secretary of state, he’s brought in less money than a fellow Republican contender, Beau Lane, in the primary race.
And in Michigan, the Trump-backed candidate for attorney general, Matt DePerno, who rose to prominence by making widely debunked claims of voter machine manipulation in the state, raised less than half of what his leading challenger, Tom Leonard, the former speaker of the Michigan House, secured last quarter. This primary, and other down-ballot statewide races in the state, will be determined at a party convention in April.
DePerno’s campaign cited the candidate’s larger number of individual donations when compared to Leonard as evidence he is best situated to win that nominating contest.
A Leonard adviser said that while the candidate hopes to restore “confidence” in elections, “when we’re looking at [the race] holistically, there are a number of important issues.”
Finchem did not return a request for comment. A Lane adviser said Lane views the job of secretary of state, which runs elections, as akin to refereeing a basketball game.
“If you don’t notice the ref, they probably did a pretty good job,” the Lane adviser said.
One of the most active promoters of the false fraud claims is Mike Lindell, the CEO of pillow company My Pillow who has poured millions of his personal fortune into efforts to prove spurious claims. He told NBC News he sees no waning interest in the subject, claiming the focus is “100 times” what it was a year ago.
But speaking with a right-wing broadcaster at CPAC, Lindell said the conference is “in fear — they don’t want anyone talking about the 2020 election.”
Chad Houck, deputy secretary of state in Idaho where Lindell has spread a number of conspiracies, says it’s a mixed bag as to whether the energy around fraud conspiracies is receding.
“I think the specific interest groups that are the most motivated by this narrative, have dug their heels in harder,” Houck, a Republican, said.
In an effort to discourage Lindell to stop spreading falsehoods about the vote count in a state Trump won by 30 points, Idaho officials have sent him a cease and desist order.