teven Freeman felt, in his bones, that something was wrong with the election. It was November 2, 2004, and the exit polls had predicted an overwhelming victory for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. But as the night rolled on, the margins grew for President George W. Bush—especially in Ohio, where the race remained uncalled as the clock ticked into the wee morning hours.
For most of the world, the uncertainty didn’t last. Kerry conceded the next day, making a cordial call to Bush, after concluding that a recount in Ohio wouldn’t change the outcome of the race. But Freeman, then a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, remembers wondering, “How could this be?” He dug around for the exit poll numbers he had fleetingly seen on TV. Then he went down a rabbit hole of statistical analysis, in search of explanations for the Bush votes that seemed to have magically appeared. A week after the election, he shared a draft of his findings with colleagues, with the conclusion that “fraud was an unavoidable hypothesis.” His analysis wound up spreading widely, drawing thousands of responses from around the country: people who believed, as he did, that the election had been stolen.
It sounds familiar to anyone who follows President Donald Trump’s Twitter today. Even as court after court has rejected his legal arguments, even after the Electoral College confirmed Joe Biden’s victory, Trump continues to insist that the 2020 election wasn’t aboveboard. “Tremendous evidence pouring in on voter fraud. There has never been anything like this in our Country!” he tweeted on Tuesday. There’s no telling what America is heading into after Joe Biden is inaugurated. But there is every chance that millions of people, perhaps many tens of millions, will cling to Trump’s claims and persist in believing that Biden is not the legitimate 46th president.
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What happens when a splinter group breaks off from the fundamental American consensus that we can trust an election? The aftermath of the Bush-Kerry race offers one potential answer. And for anyone hoping that Trump’s followers will quietly fold themselves back into the system, the 2004 experience suggests otherwise. The splinter is still out there.
Over the 16 years that followed the 2004 election, candidates have won and conceded; presidents have been inaugurated. But the loosely defined movement that launched back then has lived on. Most of its members are left-wing, though not all of them identify as Democrats. They’ve come to define their cause not around John Kerry’s rightful presidency, but around the idea of election integrity. Some are fixated on voter suppression; some subscribe to deep-state conspiracies about the manipulation of voting machines. What they share is a conviction that the 2004 election was a sham, and that it exposed a sweeping, anti-democratic cabal. Jonathan Simon, a onetime pollster-turned-lawyer-turned-chiropractor who worked with Freeman on his early analysis, summed up the prevailing view at a congressional hearing after the 2004 vote: “What we’re dealing with here, although the formality is all in place, is a stuffed animal, not a real animal—a taxidermic model of democracy.”
And many of them still believe that. Their continued commitment to the idea even today reveals that, once sown, doubt in the democratic process is difficult to dispel. Rather than recede with age, in many cases these 2004 skeptics’ concerns only deepened. And today, many of these 2004 figures have found a new cause in the 2020 election, embracing Trump’s claims about the results even if they are on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. The movement is starting to split, as others refuse to align themselves with the president and his supporters, and even think it’s dangerous to do so.