In recent days, Donald Trump has elaborated further on his claims that the Presidential election is being rigged. Many high-profile Republican politicians spoke out against the claims, with both Mike Pence and Marco Rubio (among others) rejecting Trump’s claims. Although naturally the claims were supported by Trump surrogate in chief, Rudy Giuliani, who said he, “would have to be a moron,” to say that the election in cities like “Philadelphia and Chicago is going to be fair.”
Despite Trump’s claims being denounced by the vast majority of politicians, opinion polling suggests a significant minority of voters actually believe his claims. Polling from Politico and Morning Consult suggests that 41 percent of voters believe that the election could be stolen from Trump.
The danger of this is obvious. If Trump is encouraging his supporters not to accept the result of the vote, then what is going to happen when he loses? There is certainly the potential for disorder unless Trump accepts the result of the election. In addition, if so many voters believe that these elections are not democratic, then what does that mean for the future of democracy all around the world? Especially given that the United States is often held up as a prime example of a working democracy.
However, I want to focus more on what effect this rhetoric could have on Trump’s electoral chances next month.
Trump has been using his ‘rigged election’ rhetoric for some time now, most notably suggesting that Ted Cruz had fraudulently stolen victory in the Iowa Caucus. Throughout the Republican Primary Campaign he used it to his advantage, mobilising his base to turn out in huge numbers to ensure his victory.
However, when it comes to the general election, Trump’s insistence that the election is rigged could have a different effect. I think that it could actually suppress his share of the vote.
There are many factors which influence voter turnout, but chief among these is the perceived competitiveness of the election in question. In the 2012 Presidential Election, voter turnout was 54.87 percent overall. However, this varied greatly depending upon which state you looked at. The turnout ranged from 76.1 percent in Minnesota, down to just 44.5 percent in Hawaii. But what was most notable was that turnout was generally higher in the so-called swing states. Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida all had turnouts above 60 percent. Whereas many of the perceived safe states such as Texas, West Virginia, New York, Oklahoma, and Hawaii were among the states with the lowest turnout. This strongly suggests that voters turn out in much greater numbers of they believe that their vote can truly make an impact upon the final result. This suggestion is corroborated by election data from around the world. In Russia, where election aren’t close to fair, turnout is extremely low. In this year’s legislative elections, turnout was just 47 percent, with turnout in the major cities (where people are generally better educated) being just 28 percent. A lot of this is down to the perceived illegitimacy of Russian elections. The perceived competitiveness of elections also played a part during the EU Referendum, where the Remain campaign chose to release a poll just before the election which showed them with a commanding lead. This was said to have contributed to a lower turnout than expected amongst remain backers (as some felt the result was safe). In contrast, the Leave campaign were able to get out the vote in huge numbers, and defied the polls.
Trump suggesting that the election is rigged could have a similar effect. If the election is rigged, meaning that your vote is irrelevant, then why bother casting a vote at all? You may as well just stay at home rather than venturing out to the polling station. Of course, the opposite could happen. Trump’s claims of a rigged election could persuade more voters to go to the polls in order to try and prevent the election being rigged. But, history suggests that when voters believe an election is a foregone conclusion, they often choose not to vote. If Trump’s base fails to turn out to vote, then he could be on track to receive a disastrous share of the vote. Given the difficulties that Trump already faces, and given that it is already highly unlikely that he can win this election, suppressing his share of the popular vote further would be a big mistake.
If Trump wants to retain any slim chance of winning in November, he should walk back on these claims of a rigged election. But this is Donald Trump we’re talking about, so don’t expect it to happen any time soon.