Since the final presidential debate last week, many news outlets have been delivering an unvarnished message to Donald Trump supporters: Your candidate is virtually certain to lose the election Nov. 8.
“Clinton probably finished off Trump last night,” FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver wrote the day after the debate. “Hillary Clinton is almost certain to be president,” Guardian columnist and former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson added.
A day later, the Times's Upshot blog increased Clinton's chances of winning to 93 percent, an all-time high. On Monday, Politico's Ben Schreckinger wrote that “Donald Trump's path to an election night win is almost entirely closed.” Here at The Fix, Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake wrote that “Donald Trump's chances of winning are approaching zero.”
These are accurate, statistically sound statements. But they are something else, too. Declarations that Trump is highly unlikely to win also serve as counters to the Republican nominee's warning that the “rigged” election could be “stolen from us.”
For Trump supporters to believe that the election was stolen, they would first have to believe that Trump actually won. And they would be more likely to believe Trump won if he had been winning, winning, winning right up to Election Day, only to have his lead suspiciously vanish overnight.
By making clear that Trump is not winning right now — and that he will be hard-pressed to mount a comeback in the final two weeks of the campaign — the media is effectively telling the billionaire's backers, “Hey, don't be skeptical if your guy loses. That's the outcome you should expect.” The media is priming Trump supporters for (likely) defeat.
Trump has been sowing doubt about the legitimacy of the impending vote for weeks, and some of his supporters may refuse to recognize as valid anything other than victory. But the reality of Trump's deficit — repeated over and over in the press — does appear to be sinking in.
“We are behind,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway acknowledged Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press.”
“I'm not going to lie to you,” Sean Hannity told radio listeners Monday. “Things aren't looking great right now.”
Trump himself slipped during an interview with a Charlotte radio station Monday, conceding that he is “somewhat behind in the polls.” Later in the day, however, he returned to fantasyland at a rally in St. Augustine, Fla.: “Folks, we’re winning. We’re winning. We’re winning.”
Perhaps because he has noticed that the media is blaring his unfavorable poll numbers, Trump has taken to questioning the accuracy of the polls themselves — something he did not do when surveys showed him beating the Republican primary field or closing in on Clinton last month. Trump's claim that he only appears to be losing because many polls oversample Democrats doesn't hold up to scrutiny, as The Fix's Philip Bump explained this week. But it is a telling argument.
Trump seems to realize that his voters won't believe the election is rigged unless they believe he is truly winning. He is doing everything he can to convince them that is the case, while the media reports the opposite — and real — state of the race.