The problem is that Trump’s intransigence is not occurring in a vacuum. As the leader of the Republican Party and the head of a personality-based movement numbering in the tens of millions, Trump’s rejection of election results means that millions of Americans do, as well. It poses a risk both to the American democratic system over the short term — that is, until next year’s inauguration — but more broadly to confidence in the process moving forward.
What has been unclear to this point is the extent to which Trump’s position on the election has been embraced by his base. If only a small part of it acceded to Trump’s false claims, the risk to the democratic system is smaller.
Unfortunately, it is not confined to a small part of his base.
Polling from the Economist and YouGov looked directly at the extent to which Trump voters accepted his false assertions. Asked whether they thought that president-elect Joe Biden had legitimately won, about 6 in 10 respondents said he had. Among those who voted for Trump, 86 percent said he hadn’t. Asked whether Trump should concede, the numbers were similar: 8 in 10 Trump voters said he shouldn’t.
The Trump campaign has embarked on a scattershot effort to force courts to toss the election results in key states, including Pennsylvania. Most Americans disagree with this effort, though it has the approval of most Trump voters. Most of them, in fact, think that the courts will overturn the results of the election — despite the quick flurry of losses the campaign has suffered in front of judges.
Why are they so convinced? Because they accept Trump’s allegations that the election was tainted by rampant fraud, claims that predate the election itself by months. More than three-quarters of Trump voters think that there was enough fraud involved to have influenced the outcome. Tellingly, less than half think that was true in their own states — a good example of the classic political habit of assuming that everything is worse elsewhere.
While Trump spent years falsely alleging that fraud was being committed by immigrants in the country voting illegally, he transitioned to allegations about the risks of mail-in ballots earlier this year. His fraud claims are always both wildly false and obviously opportunistic; recognizing that the coronavirus pandemic would spur more mail-in votes, he has for months been claiming (without evidence!) that such votes are suspect.
And sure enough, Trump voters believe it. Two-thirds think mail ballots are definitely being manipulated to favor Biden. It’s a claim that Trump’s team has made for more than a week, without being able to provide any evidence to support it.
There is one spot of good news: Trump voters do think that recounts would make them more confident in the election’s outcome. (On Wednesday morning, Georgia announced that it would undertake such an effort.) Despite that, nearly three-quarters of Trump voters say that we’ll probably never know the real outcome of this election, which was obviously and demonstrably won by Joe Biden.
It’s obvious that Trump’s rhetoric is a primary spur for these responses. Coming into the election, we wrote about the overconfidence of Trump’s base, rejecting polling (at Trump’s insistence) and believing fervently that he would probably win. In the YouGov poll, nearly half of Trump voters said they thought he would win the popular vote, something that was never likely.
Trump didn’t win, and two-thirds of Trump voters indicate that they are upset by the prospect of a Biden presidency. This, too, is worth remembering: Emotions are raw, and Trump supporters, disappointed. Over time, skepticism may erode and frustrations fade.
That’s assuming, though, that Trump doesn’t continue to stoke the fire. So far, his insistence that he’s not the loser has grown only more frantic. By all reports, most of those in his orbit understand that Biden did, in fact, win the election legitimately. But Trump won’t accept that, at least publicly, and so his base won’t, either. It’s likely that neither he nor many of them ever will.
It will perhaps preserve Trump’s ego. It will also necessarily erode the democratic system.