There’s little question, barring an overwhelming victory for either of the candidates, that President Trump will use those days to call into question any result that erodes the margins he sees on Election Day. He’s repeatedly insisted that there’s necessarily something suspect about votes counted after the fact, and in Florida in 2018 he repeatedly insisted that the counting of absentee ballots in heavily Democratic counties was somehow fraudulent. (A later review established what was obvious at the time: The tally was legitimate.)
That the sitting president will attempt to shape the results is a problem for obvious reasons. But it’s also clear that Trump has effectively persuaded some sizable part of his base to think that a victory is a near-certainty, establishing a toxic and potentially dangerous situation in which a legitimate election is viewed by many voters as invalid.
Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released data from a poll in which it asked voters who they expected to win in November. While Joe Biden led Trump by eight points in the same poll, voters were about evenly split on who they actually thought would win. That’s in large part because about 9 in 10 Trump supporters said they believed Trump would win, while only 8 in 10 Biden supporters were as confident. Among Trump’s strongest supporters, 97 percent said that they expected him to win.
How does that work? Well, for one thing, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he will win — barring Democrats “rigging” the election.
“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged — remember that,” Trump said in Wisconsin earlier this month. “It’s the only way we’re going to lose this election.”
In an article about increasing violent confrontations between Trump supporters and Democrats, The Washington Post’s Tim Craig spoke with Martin Holsome, an elected official in Texas.
“Holsome, who is biracial and identifies as White and Black, said he believes Black Lives Matter protesters have been infiltrated by anarchists who are a determined to destabilize small towns in Texas,” Craig wrote. “He also worries that liberals are planning to unfairly steal the election away from Trump.”
It’s not a mystery where that belief might have originated.
These claims about rigging are why Trump purports to dislike absentee voting (though his campaign is actually urging supporters to cast mail ballots). These ballots, Trump says, allow Democrats to cheat. (“It’s much easier for them to cheat with universal mail-in ballots,” he said at a news conference on Aug. 7.)
Most Republicans now oppose letting all citizens vote by mail, according to a Fox News poll released this month. Support for the process grew more polarized after Trump started harping on the issue earlier this year.
Polls such as Pew’s and that Fox News poll show that Biden is the favorite. If the election were held today, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast has Biden with 2-to-1 odds of winning. Shouldn’t that prompt Trump supporters to assume that he won’t prevail?
Well, no, since Trump supporters — and many other Americans — don’t have confidence in the accuracy of polling.
To some extent, this is understandable. Polling in the 2016 election showed that Trump was likely to lose in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. He didn’t, and he won the presidency. But national polling in 2016 was quite accurate, showing Hillary Clinton with a small lead. Some of the state polls that were later criticized as inaccurate actually reflected Trump performing within the margin of error.
But nuanced assessments of polling are poorly suited to combating the general sense that polling got something wrong — and, therefore, that polling this time is missing support for Trump that his base (and many Democrats) expect to see materialize on Election Day.
That’s bolstered by claims that there is a broad range of Trump support in the election that isn’t captured in polling. There’s not much evidence that such a group exists to any significant extent, sporadic anecdotes about people lying to pollsters notwithstanding. The idea plays to Trump’s benefit in being unfalsifiable: You can’t detect these supporters because they refuse to be measured! It’s also a bit hard to reconcile Trump’s constant assertions about enthusiasm in his base (as measured by polls) with his further claim that his base is shy about telling pollsters what it believes.
Now we fast-forward to Nov. 4. Results in a number of states have Trump leading in the day-of voting, including Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada and Texas. There could, in fact, be far more states where Trump is leading, including heavily blue ones, simply because of the gap in interest in mail voting between the parties.
Biden’s campaign and other officials will encourage people to be patient, with hundreds of thousands of votes still outstanding. But what will many Trump supporters hear? They’ll hear the apparent loser of the race and his “allies” in the media rejecting what they know to be true — that Trump won in a landslide. They’ll hear that Trump’s win — again upending his opponent’s national polling lead! — is being targeted with fraudulent mail ballots. They’ll hear that what Trump said would happen is, in fact happening.
What happens next? If recent weeks are any indication, tension may erupt into violence. In 2000, when the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore was unresolved, a nattily dressed group of men stormed a meeting of Miami-Dade ballot-counters in an attempt to interrupt a recount that was underway. Imagine the same scenario playing out in multiple states. Imagine the defining characteristic of the protesters being not Brooks Brothers slacks but AR-15s.
At this point, it is very much the case that Trump could win reelection. It is also very much the case — more the case, at the moment — that Biden could win. If November arrives with one side not believing that a loss is possible, the tension the country is seeing could seem docile in retrospect.
After all, remember that a prominent public voice called for revolution on election night 2012 when it seemed possible that President Barack Obama might win the electoral vote but earn a lower percentage of the popular vote.
That voice was Donald Trump’s.