If you were curious about whether supporters of Donald Trump would believe his argument that the election is rigged against him and that he may lose because of voter fraud, the answer is yes. And that may be a bad thing for Trump.
On Sunday, ABC News released a survey showing Hillary Clinton with a 12-point lead nationally. Buried a bit deeper in the poll were respondents' attitudes about Trump's claims of vote-rigging. Overall, 59 percent of respondents figured that Trump's oft-repeated claims that the vote is being rigged and that he'd otherwise win is simply an excuse he is using to offset an eventual loss. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said the issue was legitimate — a figure that includes 74 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Trump supporters.
In other words, after years of being told that voter fraud is a significant issue and after months of hearing the Republican Party's nominee for president echo the same claim, those most likely to support Trump also believe that there's a real risk of the election being stolen.
(Obligatory aside: There is not. In August, we looked at how difficult it would be to rig a national election and at the various safeguards in place to prevent it. Vote fraud occurs — but on a tiny scale, particularly relative to a national election. We even made a little interactive showing how rare vote fraud is. The amount of fraud found in one study between 2000 and 2014 in every contest nationally — 1 billion ballots cast — was about half of the final margin in Florida in the Bush-Gore contest.)
Claiming there is a risk of fraud certainly does serve to soften the blow of what increasingly looks like a likely and lopsided Clinton victory. But it could also make that victory even more lopsided still.
Trump's core of support is, for a Republican presidential candidate, unusually made up of less-frequent voters. It's typically the case that college-educated white voters, who vote heavily, prefer the Republican nominee. This year, Hillary Clinton has the edge with that voting bloc. Trump's support is concentrated heavily among whites without college degrees, who are less likely to say they are certain to vote (and less likely to actually do so). Trump needs those less-frequent voters to go to the polls.
One study noted by the Monkey Cage suggests that claims of a rigged vote will make it less likely that infrequent voters go to the polls instead of more.
Researchers Adam Seth Levine and Robyn Stiles (of Cornell and LSU, respectively) tested two messages in Google advertisements. In one case, the control, the message was a simple call to register to vote, noting that doing so was “quick, easy and free.” In the other, readers were exhorted to register because the “wealthy [are] buying elections,” because “the system is rigged” or because “your voice is not yet being heard” — three messages focused on the role of money in politics.
The result? "[O]ur results are consistent with survey-based evidence showing that perceptions of unequal influence reduce electoral engagement,” the authors write.
The “rigged” and “wealthy” arguments were the least likely to be clicked, and, in a follow-up survey, the three arguments based on the role of money resulted in people saying that they were less likely to vote in November.
It's hard to suss out whether Trump's “the vote is rigged” message is already tamping down the enthusiasm of his base, but in ABC's new poll, the number of Republicans who reported being likely to vote fell seven points since the Post-ABC poll released earlier this month. Trump frequently points to his boisterous crowds as evidence that he's sitting atop a tidal wave of enthusiasm, but polling suggests that Trump voters are less enthusiastic now than Mitt Romney voters were at this point four years ago.
As it stands, Trump is broadly unpopular and relying heavily on strong turnout from a group of voters that generally doesn't turn out that much. He needs to provide arguments that will get them (and others) to go cast a ballot on his behalf. Telling them instead that the vote is rigged and, implicitly, that their votes may not count seems like the exact opposite of what he should be doing.