As Republicans march forward through a series of ferociously competitive primary battles, a single polarizing issue separates the party's two warring factions.
The GOP, which enjoys remarkably broad, consistently conservative consensus on questions of policy, can't reach agreement on what actually happened in the presidential contest of 2020. Majorities of party loyalists follow Trump in his insistence that Biden stole the election through massive fraud in the key swing states, while a sizable minority believes that the final result, as disappointing as it may have been, counted as "free and fair."
The nature of this division provides for predictable results in party primaries but will make for very different outcomes in the general elections that follow in November.
When voters in a given contest are all Republicans, the "rigged election" candidates may enjoy an eager audience and a notable advantage, as did J.D. Vance in winning the Senate nomination in Ohio, or Alex Mooney with his surprisingly decisive win over a fellow GOP incumbent in a West Virginia Congressional race.
But in the nation at large, with Democrats and independents combining to comprise a clear majority in every state, the "stop the steal" narrative won't get a sympathetic hearing.
Fourteen national polls have measured the nation's perspective of the 2020 election outcome, and all of them, counting voters of every party, show commanding, consistent majorities who viewed the results as on-the-level and fraud-free.
Two-thirds of the public believe that our electoral system functioned honestly in electing Joe Biden, with about half as manyâ€”one-thirdâ€”harboring persistent doubts about the integrity of the election process.
After all the recounts, audits, lawsuits, legislative investigations and media reports from journalists on the right and the left, public opinion has hardly budged in the year and a half since the election.
If anything, acceptance of the balloting results has gone upâ€”a Quinnipiac Poll right after the balloting showed 34% who originally saw the election as "not legitimate"; six months later, the same company did a similar survey reporting that the percentage that questioned the contest's integrity had dropped to 29%.
What makes such results all the more striking and significant is that even Joe Biden's catastrophic collapse in his job approval ratings hasn't swelled the ranks of the rigged election true believers. Increasing numbers of Americans may view the choice of Joe Biden as a mistake, but there's been no measurable growth in the percentage who see his 2020 victory as the result of a crime.
None of this alters the likelihood of sweeping Republican victory in November but it does argue that GOP nominees should drop the tiresome yammering about election fraud once they've succeeded in their primaries.
When it comes to what Democrats love to call "The Big Lie", most people don't believe it, and even those who do should realize there's nothing a Senator, Governor, House member or state legislator can do about it.
The election won't be overturned because it can't be overturned; there's no legal, Constitutional path to decertify the 2020 results and return Trump to the White House other than going through another endless, polarizing presidential campaign at age 78, with forlorn hopes that 30 months from today he'd do better than the 47% he won last time.
Moreover, there's no reason to believe that in the months before that next chance in 2024 there would be stronger support for the stolen election theory.
Any attempts to portray Biden's victory as the result of a malevolent conspiracy have been upstaged by the obsessive attempts of the January 6th Congressional Committee to prove the existence of a real conspiracy, at the highest level, to overturn the election results.
The Democrats want to keep the investigation going because they know that the rioters who used force in assaulting the Capitol did so on behalf of their rigged election convictions.
More focus on the entire subject can only strengthen the liberal assault that paints today's Republicans as part of a cultish fringe that functions well outside the national mainstream.
To counteract that designation, successful Republican candidates must drop the stolen election references that may have helped win this year's primaries, but can only damage their prospects in the general elections of 2022, 2024 and for many years to come.