Donald Trump appears to finally realize he is losing, but rather than publicly accept reality, he’s flirting with burning the whole system down. Building upon decades of Republican efforts to question the integrity of our electoral system, Trump for weeks has been falsely claiming the election is rigged against him. During his final debate with Hillary Clinton, he even threatened he might not accept the result if he loses. But while Trump’s dangerous rhetoric undermines democracy in the long run, right now, it’s only hurting the GOP. In fact, there are signs that Trump’s constant refrain that the election is rigged are working against both himself and down-ballot Republicans.
Trump might simply be making excuses for why he’s losing, which would be unsurprising for someone who seems to never own up to his mistakes. Regardless of his motivations for blaming a rigged election for his impending loss—and even though his claims are utterly bogus—his supporters believe them, in large part because our polarized politics encouraging partisans to rally around their partisan tribe. Indeed, several polls have shown Trump voters largely agree the election has to be rigged in order for Clinton to win.
Nonetheless, Trump’s words could be hurting his own candidacy, and his premature blend of excuses for his upcoming loss could cement a blowout defeat that renders his cries of foul play even more absurd. When Trump tells his supporters the process is rigged, many Republican voters might believe there’s no point in voting if that is indeed true. Should these demoralized voters stay home results could be catastrophic for the GOP. And in fact, multiple pieces of political science research and recent polling data indicate that Trump’s words are having a hostile effect on Republican enthusiasm.
One study involved a randomized experiment where researchers showed different ad messages to voters who searched Google for information on voter registration. One set of ads that accompanied search results highlighted how easy and free registration was, providing a link to register. An alternate set of messages emphasized how “the system is rigged” and how voters’ choices didn’t matter. Those who saw the latter messages were less likely to click the ad’s link to register to vote. While this is just one limited experiment, it suggests that a threatening message about an unfair election can turn off potential voters.
Studies on foreign elections also suggest that voters are less likely to turn out if they distrust the integrity of the political system. One experiment in Mexico found that informing voters about the governing party’s corruption lowered their inclination to vote. Another study analyzed turnout across a range of countries and found that heightened voter perceptions of political corruption did indeed lower turnout, but only in relatively lower-corruption countries like the United States and in Western Europe.
Polling data also suggests that a demoralizing message like the one Trump is spreading can backfire. Morning Consult conducted a recent poll about voters’ confidence that vote counting would be accurate. The survey generally quizzed voters about whether they thought their own vote would be faithfully counted and whether votes across the country would be accurately tabulated.
What Morning Consult found was that Trump appeared to be causing Democrats to increasingly believe that their votes would be counted correctly. By making accurate election-counting a polarized partisan issue, Trump had simply told Republican voters the same falsehood their party leaders had been telling them for years about nonexistent voter fraud, but he’d also energized Democrats to rally around the integrity of the electoral system. If this finding is accurate, Democrats could be even more likely to vote if they increasingly believe their vote will count, while the opposite could be true for Republicans.
Another recent ABC poll similarly found dampened enthusiasm among Republican voters. While ABC’s polls from previous months showed that Trump voters were more energized about voting, that finding has flipped around to favor Clinton supporters in a recent October survey. At the same time, many more Clinton voters also expressed a feeling that their vote was not just one in opposition to Trump but also a positive one for Clinton, while most Trump backers claimed their vote was mainly to oppose Clinton. This disparity could make it even more difficult for Republicans to motivate their voters if they despise both candidates.
Although none of this evidence can offer definitive proof, it does suggest that Trump’s rhetoric could indeed be backfiring. And if Republican turnout falls because GOP voters lose faith in the integrity of the results, that could cause Trump to lose by an even wider margin than the polls predict. If that comes to pass, Republicans would likely lose their Senate majority, and their gerrymandered grip on the House could also be seriously endangered. In other words, Trump’s need to prematurely make excuses for his own loss could help seal the defeat of his entire party. Nothing could be more fitting.