Unless something changes drastically, and quickly, Republicans seem to be on the path to lose the White House in 2024. The elephant in the room that threatens to keep the elephants out of the room — a large part of the GOP primary base believes the 2020 election was stolen, while another part of that base (along with the public at large) thinks the result was largely business as usual, other than the reaction to that loss by former President Donald Trump and some of his supporters. This disagreement on basic facts will make it difficult for Republicans to coalesce around a candidate.

Polls show that after 2020, and former President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that the election was stolen, about 70% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believed Biden’s win was illegitimate. Another 30% believed the GOP simply lost. These numbers have tightened in the years since, but not by a lot.

A recent USA Today poll of Iowa GOP caucusgoers found that about 51% believed that Donald Trump won the election, 41% believe Joe Biden won, and another 8% weren’t sure. In national polling of Republicans, these numbers are more like 60% to 40%.

Some, like conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, believe that the Democrats did a lot of technically legal things — like going to court to tweak state laws on mail-in ballots and blocking unfavorable stories on social media about Hunter Biden’s laptop — to give their side the edge. It’s unclear where those who hold this view of Democrats bending and changing, but not breaking, the rules would land in these polls.

Regardless, for many GOP primary voters, the 2024 contest is a test of loyalty, as the legitimate president, in their eyes, was cheated out of another term and is being railroaded with bogus charges in multiple states.

Those who believe Trump won in 2020 largely have their mind made up that any Republican who challenges him is disloyal and part of the problem almost by definition. By consequence, Trump is consistently receiving 50-60% (sometimes more) of the GOP primary vote in polls. The other 40% is split among many others and does not seem to be consolidating into a single “not-Trump” candidate.

The debate in Wisconsin

The first GOP presidential primary debate, which happened in Wisconsin this week, was a clear display of this reality. Two separate programs — one for the 60% and one for the 40% — ran simultaneously. There was the debate itself, for the 40% who are looking for a non-Trump candidate, but there was also the Donald Trump interview with Tucker Carlson, which Trump happened to schedule for the same time.

Part of the conundrum for those who aren’t Trump is how they can make a case that they should be the nominee instead of Trump without saying something that 60% of the party doesn’t want to hear — Trump didn’t win last time and is even less likely to win in 2024. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely considered to be the most likely to put up a real challenge to Trump, struggled with just this problem during the debate.

When asked if former Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing by certifying the 2020 election results sent by the states, making Joe Biden the next president, he dodged as long as he could before begrudgingly saying, “Mike did his duty. I got no beef with him.”

This answer is unlikely to have made either side of the 2020 question very happy. But with a solid majority of their prospective voters convinced Democrats cheated to get Biden in office, candidates may be wise to avoid admitting they disagree. All the candidates who answered the question ended up saying that Pence was right to certify the 2020 results, but none made it a major emphasis of their message to say, “Biden won. Let’s focus on how to win this time.”

If someone did run an aggressively anti-Trump campaign, and they were somehow able to win (like if Trump were disqualified due to his legal troubles), it’s unlikely Trump voters would enthusiastically rally around them in the general.

So in a Scenario A, of a “Trump lost” candidate being the nominee, they would almost certainly not be able to rally the base and win. But in Scenario B, of a “Trump won” candidate, likely Trump himself, being the nominee, Republicans are also unlikely to be able to pull together a coalition. This is because while 60% of Republicans may think 2020 was stolen and are eager to relitigate that election, the numbers are flipped in the General Election voter pool — with around 30% of all voters thinking it was likely stolen but 60% thinking it was not.

It won’t just be Democrats turned off by this continued talk of 2020. Swing demographics like suburbanites, married women, Hispanic men, and the blue-collar Rust Belt voters that Trump was able to swing in 2016 (but not 2020) are unlikely to be won over in greater numbers than they were in last election by this message, unless some new convincing evidence of 2020 voter fraud is found. This would likely take states like Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Wisconsin, and maybe even here in North Carolina off the table.

In the worst case scenario for Republicans, that 30-40% of their own party who agrees with America at large on 2020 not being stolen may decide to sit this cycle out, preventing very winnable US Senate pickups like Ohio and Montana.

A foreshadowing of the General Election?

An incident in Raleigh this week shows just how hot this issue of whether or not the 2020 election was stolen still is. John Kane Jr, son of prominent developer John Kane and losing candidate for NC GOP chairman, released a video of a bicyclist vandalizing his “Trump won” sign, which happened to have a camera trained on it.

Kane offered a $1,000 reward for information identifying the arsonist, and the post went viral. Major national shows played the tape, and the vandal was quickly identified as James D. White Jr. The NC Board of Elections lists White as a registered Democrat.

Kane used the opportunity to explain his reasoning for displaying the sign. Quoting Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the famous survivor of the Soviet gulags, Kane said it was a “simple step of a courageous individual” to “not take part in the lie.” The lie in this case, according to Kane, is that Joe Biden won in 2020.

Kane is not alone in this belief — not even close. And with the then-president declaring it over and over, it’s not hard to see why. Even for those who waited patiently for proof that never came, they continue to hold to the belief, even if just as a hunch (half of those who say it was stolen say they do not have evidence, only a suspicion).

But with 40% of their own party disagreeing, as well as the vast majority of the public at large, Republicans will have a hard time pulling together a candidate that can appease all conservative factions while also being competitive in the general.

Maybe 2024 has been “stolen” already as well.