As the presidential 2016 election wound down, a low rumble formed. Should Donald Trump lose the race, people wondered, would he accept the election results? Or, instead, would the country be ripped apart by a candidate and his fervent base of support refusing to accept what actually happened? In the third and final debate, Trump demurred on a question centered on that issue.
“I will look at it at the time,” he said of accepting the election results. He added that “what I’ve seen is so bad,” what with the media being “dishonest and so corrupt” and with the existence of “millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote.”
This wasn’t a new claim by Trump. He seized upon a 2012 report from the Pew Center on the States that noted that state voter rolls often included people who’d died or moved because registrars were slow to update their records. As we reported at the time that Trump made this claim, there was no evidence that votes were actually cast on behalf of many — or, really, any — of these dead people. (An author of the report made the rounds after Trump’s comments to note that there was no suggestion of fraud in his work.) The report simply served as a comfortable sort of gray area into which Trump could slot suggestions about how the system was stacked against him.
After the election, of course, Trump didn’t need to reject its results: He was elected president. But he rejected the results of the election anyway.
Time and time again, Trump has claimed that the results of the popular vote — which Hillary Clinton won by a 2.9-million-vote margin — are somehow suspect. He began to question the results in states he lost before November 2016 had even ended, pointing to “Serious voter fraud” in California, Virginia and New Hampshire.
He finds California particularly grating; the margin there was itself larger than the margin by which Clinton prevailed in the popular vote. California is also home to a lot of immigrants who, Trump has claimed, are encouraged to come to the country illegally by Democrats so that they can cast illegal votes for Democratic candidates (or, at least, that their families will eventually vote Democratic). It’s an argument that sloppily incorporates much of Trump’s rhetoric: obviously wrong arguments about voter fraud and lawbreaking by immigrants to the United States.
If you were wondering, this is still Trump’s position.
Last week, he sat down for an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd that aired Sunday. Todd asked Trump if it didn’t bother him that he’d lost the popular vote.
“Well, I think it was a — I mean, I’ll say something that, again, is controversial,” Trump replied. “There were a lot of votes cast that I don’t believe. I look at California.”
Todd interjected with some skepticism.
“Take a look at Judicial Watch,” Trump insisted. “Take a look at their settlement where California admitted to a million votes. They admitted to a million votes.”
“What are you talking about?” Todd responded.
“Judicial Watch made a settlement,” Trump said. “There was much illegal voting.”
What Trump is referring to is a lawsuit brought by the Trump-friendly activist organization Judicial Watch in which Los Angeles County — where Trump lost by 1.7 million votes — had to cull voters from its rolls. Trump has in the past argued that Judicial Watch forced Los Angeles to somehow admit to a million people having voted illegally, which is obviously untrue. As with the Pew report, at issue are outdated registrations, not any allegations of widespread (or even minor) fraudulent voting.
As with literally all his other claims about voter fraud having affected the outcome of the 2016 election, this one is entirely without merit. His claims about California, about Virginia, about New Hampshire, about millions of votes nationally, about everything. He appointed a commission to uncover fraud as others have in the past; it collapsed without uncovering anything.
It’s worth noting, though, the context in which Todd raised the issue.
“Are you prepared to lose?” Todd asked about the 2020 election.
“No,” Trump replied. “Probably not. Probably not.”
This loops us back around to that 2016 debate, in which Trump raised the prospect of possible fraudulent votes by dead people as a rationale for not accepting how that race turned out. This question of whether Trump will accede graciously should he lose in 2020 has again been burbling under the surface, crystallizing last week in a Politico article that noted some concerns in Washington about Trump’s willingness to accept rejection from American voters.
It’s clear already, of course, that Trump doesn’t have a firm grasp on the reality of his political position. He rejects polls as inaccurate, claiming that he would have approval topping 60 or 70 percent were it not for the media. He’s claimed that “the people” will want him to remain in office past 2024, should he win reelection — ignoring that “the people” who support him so fervently have never made up much more than a third of the country.
We avoided the worst-case scenario in 2016 because Trump edged out Clinton in three states by a combined 78,000 votes to win the necessary electoral votes. Now, the stakes are likely higher, with Trump already in power. Had he lost the electoral vote in 2016, there might have been some tension. If he loses in 2020 — particularly if he loses narrowly — does anyone think he’ll accept that defeat graciously, given his refusal to accept an incidental popular-vote loss in the election he won?
What happens to Trump in that event is probably less important than what happens among his supporters. There aren’t many viable ways for Trump to maintain power for a long period of time in the event of an electoral loss. But how will supporters, well-primed to reject both unfavorable election results and the media’s coverage of that possibility, respond to the incoming president? For all of the Trump administration’s insistence that he faces unprecedented opposition from Clinton supporters angry about how 2016 turned out, an insistence by Trump that the 2020 election was stolen from him could galvanize a whole new level of anger.
It’s instructive to remember the very first political race Trump lost: The 2016 Iowa caucuses. Trump was well-positioned coming into the contest that year, but ended up losing to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) by three percentage points.
The night of the caucus, Trump was gracious. He claimed that he might buy a farm in Iowa and move to the state, he loved it so much, but also offered his congratulations to Cruz. Within hours, though, his tone shifted.
The caucuses were on Feb. 1. Two days later he was accusing Cruz of having stolen the election.
This wasn’t true, of course. But since when has that stopped Donald Trump?