Donald Trump deserves to lose big, so he should. But an anti-Trump blowout would nevertheless present unique problems. One is how Trump and his allies would process the defeat.
“Of course, I would accept a clear election result,” Trump said last week. Trump allies, such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, insist that Trump’s recent focus on phantom voting irregularities and fraud simply shows that he reserves the right to contest close vote totals.
Or maybe Trump would use wide vote margins as pretext for crying foul, too. A conspiratorial mind — Trump’s mind — could easily argue that a wide Hillary Clinton win is itself evidence of untoward vote manipulation. As George Will points out in his Thursday column, a landslide would be unusual. Landslides do not happen in U.S. presidential elections any longer. Ronald Reagan in 1984 was the last candidate to win by a double-digit percentage-point margin.
Even if Clinton won by mid- to high-single digits, Trump could point to a slew of tracking polls — from the Los Angeles Times, Rasmussen Reports and Investor’s Business Daily — showing an extremely tight race. He already does so on the trail, even though these polls buck a strong, pro-Clinton lead in aggregated poll numbers. He could also point to Clinton’s unpopularity and insist that a blowout simply should not have been possible.
Politico reported last week that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would step in if Trump refused to accept next month’s election results. This might backfire, as Trump and his allies could claim that their meddling is evidence that the establishment has been plotting against him all along. If voters split their tickets, voting against Trump at the top of the ballot but for Republicans down-ballot, the gap between the success of the GOP nominee and GOP congressional candidates would be more “proof” of the plot.
It also could be easier for Trump to scream fraud if Clinton won or came very close in some red states, such as Arizona, Georgia and Texas, or if third-party candidate Evan McMullin flipped Utah out of the Trump column — results that polls show are possible this cycle but that would not fit the usual pattern. The reasonable observer would recognize that this is what a legitimate blowout looks like. The Trumpian reaction might very well be: This is what a stolen election looks like.
Trump is stoking this conspiracy narrative. He tweeted on Thursday: “A lot of call-ins about vote flipping at the voting booths in Texas. People are not happy. BIG lines. What is going on?”
Here is what is going on: Trump’s campaign is failing, and he is attempting to look like a victim rather than a loser. How much damage he does to the notion that the nation’s political debate should have some relationship to reality, not to mention the country’s faith in its political system, remains to be seen.
UPDATE, 3:57 p.m.: The New York Times offers a sense of the stakes riding on Trump’s reaction, reporting that “some Donald Trump supporters warn of revolution if Hillary Clinton wins.” Reporters Ashley Parker and Nick Corasaniti rely on anecdotal evidence — but polling also shows that a majority of Republicans believe Clinton could only win through fraud. These are not healthy signs for a democracy.