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The Republican Candidates Weren’t Asked if Trump Lost in 2020. But All Say He Did.

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In the hours after the polls closed on Election Day in 2020, President Donald Trump’s campaign advisors had told him the outcome of the election was still unclear, and it wasn’t looking good for him. But Trump ignored them, and just after 2 a.m. on Nov. 4, 2020, stood at a podium in the East Room of the White House and called the election “a fraud.”

“Frankly, we did win this election,” he said, setting in motion his failed attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s win, including a violent attack at the Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021.

The eight Republican presidential candidates standing on a debate stage Wednesday night were never directly asked who won the 2020 election. But Fox News journalist Martha McCallum did ask them something of a proxy question: whether Vice President Mike Pence "did the right thing" when he "moved forward with the certification of the election" on Jan. 6?

All of the candidates who answered said yes. If that was a surprise to those watching, it shouldn't have been. All eight candidates had, in one way or another, already acknowledged that Biden won.

"I do not believe the election was stolen," Senator Tim Scott said in July.

“Of course he lost,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said this month, referring to Trump.

Even Vivek Ramaswamy, Trump’s most vocal booster on the debate stage, recently told Bill Maher, "Biden had the most votes in the election," though he refused to explicitly say the words “Biden won.”

That admission not only puts all eight candidates at odds with Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination who continues to lie and say Biden fraudulently stole the election from him, but out of step with a large portion of the Republican primary voters they are currently trying to win over. 

A CNN poll in March found that 63% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election. That number ticked up to 69% in a similar CNN poll from early August. These candidates are all in the same position Fox News executives found themselves in when their data didn’t line up with what their target audience wanted to hear.

The challengers to Trump are closer to where the general election voters are on the issue. Meaning that if any of them could get past Trump, they wouldn’t be dragged down by having denied the truth that Biden won. A Monmouth poll from June found that 59% of Amerians believe Biden won the election "fair and square.”

The question of who won the 2020 election is “a proxy conversation for one’s allegiance to Trump,” says William Howell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

While the eight candidates on the debate stage recognize Biden won the election, most don’t bring it up unless pressed, as DeSantis was in an Aug. 7 NBC News interview. And while Ramaswamy agrees that Biden got the most votes, he insists that tech companies unethically helped Biden before Election Day by suppressing negative stories about the Biden family on social media.

Yet despite the fact that Trump faces criminal charges both in federal court and in Georgia over his efforts to overturn an election they acknowledge he lost, most of the candidates on stage could not ignore Trump’s popularity with the Republican base Wednesday night. In a telling moment, six of the eight candidates said they would still support Trump in the general election if he were the GOP nominee, even if he had been convicted in court. Only former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson said such a conviction would be a red line. "Someone has got to stop normalizing this conduct," Christie said. "Whether or not you believe the criminal charges are right or wrong, the conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States." Hutchinson said he wouldn’t “support someone who has been convinced of a serious felony.”

Pence had a striking moment later on, amid the discussion over his refusal to cave to Trump’s pressure to overturn the election result on Jan. 6.  “He asked me to put him over the Constitution. I chose the Constitution and I always will,” Pence said. But when it came time to indicate whether he would still support Trump as the Republican nominee with a criminal conviction, even Pence raised his hand. 

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