With the exception of the Los Angeles Times-USC tracking poll — a poll that has been a consistent outlier and which uses an unorthodox methodology — Donald Trump hasn't led in a national head-to-head poll in the past month.
In a four-way contest — including Green Party and Libertarian Party nominees — Trump leads in four polls, two of which are from the conservative Rasmussen Reports. In nearly every other poll, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has a lead, and that lead has ticked upward since her first debate with the Republican nominee. She leads by 5.5 points in a head-to-head race, according to RealClearPolitics, and by 6.3 points in the four-way.
In other words, all of the available evidence from scientifically conducted polling shows that Trump is very likely going to lose the election three weeks from tomorrow. There are a lot of reasons, but the most prominent is that Trump has been unable to expand his support beyond the hard kernel that helped propel him to victory in the primaries. His repeated reliance on arguments that are embraced only by that base means that he's been unable to woo new voters or, at least, hold their support.
With a very public and very thorough defeat looming, though, that's not the argument Trump is making on Twitter. Instead, he claimed Monday morning that the election is being rigged.
Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2016
It isn't. Some people in Trump's party have focused on the purported threat of voter fraud as a way to tighten restrictions on the ability to vote, restrictions that often make it harder for Democrats to get to the polls. But there's simply no credible evidence that in-person voter fraud happens with any regularity, much less at a scale that could affect a national race.
You can read Republican election lawyer Chris Ashby's thorough explanation of how difficult it would be to rig an election. Ashby walks through the checks and balances in place, highlighting the fact that the election is broadly distributed across states, counties and precincts and that the actual mechanics of running the election are executed by ordinary citizens.
Or you can look at studies tracking voter fraud, like the now-famous one in which a professor at Loyola Law School traced years' worth of votes and found only a few sporadic instances of possible — but not certain — fraud. Specifically: 31 incidents out of 1 billion votes cast.
Or you can use common sense. How do you find hundreds of people to go vote multiple times in precisely the right places to throw the election? Sure, Democrat Al Gore lost Florida in 2000 thanks to a few hundred ballots. But how could the Republicans have known to target Florida with enough fraudulent votes to win the race but few enough to avoid detection? Human beings are very bad at scale, and theories about the rigging of a presidential election make that clear. Maybe you can throw a mayoral race in a small town by getting a handful of people to go vote several times (assuming they can sneak past the protections in place to prevent such a thing). But presidential races involve millions of votes. That's a whole different ballgame.
How does voter fraud happen before Election Day, anyway? Is Trump saying that early voting is rigged? If he has evidence of that, why not present that evidence? SPOILER: He does not have evidence of that.
Let's consider Florida and North Carolina, two states in which early voting is going on now. Elections are run by states, and in Florida and North Carolina, the governors and secretaries of state are all Republican. Is Florida's Republican Secretary of State Ken Detzner rigging the early vote for Clinton? Is he looking the other way? Trump likes to issue the racially loaded charge that black voters in Philadelphia might commit fraud. In July 2012, the administration of the Republican governor in Pennsylvania made a remarkable admission in a legal filing: There simply was no known fraud in the state.
Trump supporters are left issuing broad conspiracy theories about fraud, in much the same way they issue broad conspiracy theories about the polls. In the case of the polls, the accusation is that polling doesn't capture accurate numbers because Trump supporters fear the social judgment of the pollsters who are calling. This was a common argument from the Trump camp in August, the last time he was trailing badly. But as we noted at the time, Trump did just as poorly in Internet-based polls, where no human interaction was required. Could the polls all be wrong? It's possible. Is there evidence that they are? There isn't.
The theory about voter fraud is that it's out there but it's just never been caught. It's so effective and so sneaky that no one has unearthed it. Or, in more advanced iterations, the fraud is demonstrated by random YouTube videos and anecdotes, but officials simply disregard it — including, for some reason, those Republican governors who would love examples that bolster the case for voter ID laws. The idea that there's undetectable voter fraud is, of course, impossible to refute, in the same way that it's impossible to refute the idea that there are aliens who've visited Earth. There's no evidence of those close encounters, but some people believe that it happens. How can you dissuade them?
In Trump's case, we have a man whose entire existence is predicated on the idea that he is the best and he is a winner, but now finds himself teetering on the brink of total failure. He's right when he says that his run for the presidency will largely be a waste of time and money if he loses; democratic elections are awfully zero-sum. It will be hard to spin as “Trump emerges victorious once again” if he loses. So what he's doing is simply providing an excuse in advance for why that loss is likely to happen.
Put another way, Trump is happy to toss public confidence in our electoral system under the bus simply because he doesn't want to have to face the world as a loser. It's more important to him to look like a winner than it is that his supporters have confidence in the way we choose our leaders — a confidence, mind you, that is deserved. America has a very good process for ensuring that the voice of the people is heard in as transparent a way as possible, facilitating the peaceful transfers of power that have made us the most stable and envied democracy in the world.
If preserving that means that Trump has to own up to failure, then that's a cost that we — and he — should be willing to incur.