US President Donald Trump’s persistent, baseless claims of election fraud are causing a bit of schizophrenia among the chattering class. On the one hand, a lot of reporters are getting anonymous quotes from reams of Trump White House staffers who acknowledge the futility of Trump’s fight.
Washington Post writes, “[Trump] advisers privately acknowledged that President-elect Joe Biden’s official victory is less a question of ‘if’ than ‘when.’ David Ignatius quotes one senior congressional source as asking: “How much do you stay quiet during the tantrum period? What damage will it do to national security? That’s a real-time discussion that’s going on.”
All of this confirms what any sane observer has been saying for the past week: There is no evidence of appreciable voter fraud, Donald Trump has lost the presidential election, Joe Biden has won the popular vote and the electoral college by comfortable margins, nothing the Trump campaign does is going to disrupt the succession timeline. On Jan. 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be inaugurated the 46th president of the United States.
On the other hand, the GOP’s decision to coddle Trump has caused a fair amount of consternation among political observers. The GOP strategy is raising the risk of undermining the public’s faith in the vote and, by obstructing President-elect Joe Biden’s transition, potentially imperilling national security. Is it correct, though? I am not so sure. To be clear, I in no way condone what either Trump or the GOP is doing right now. The question is whether it matters in 21st-century America.
The post-election polling on this question lacks clarity. Reuters/Ipsos polled Americans and found that “79% of US adults believe Biden won the White House. Another 13% said the election has not yet been decided, 3% said Trump won and 5% said they do not know.” Even a majority of Republicans believed that Biden had won.
On the other hand, an Economist/YouGov poll produced more disconcerting findings. Eighty-six per cent of Trump supporters do not think Joe Biden legitimately won the election (though 67% said they would have more confidence after a recount), and 81% of Trump voters believed enough voter fraud occurred to affect the overall outcome (though that number fell to 39% when asked about their own state).
The numbers are not great, but perhaps some historical context is necessary to remind everyone about the past 30 years of presidential legitimacy. Bill Clinton won two terms as president but never cracked 50% of the vote. Congressional Republicans investigated every facet of Clinton’s pre-presidential and presidential record, eventually impeaching him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Raw nerve for both parties
George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and barely won the electoral college based on a 537-vote win in Florida when the Supreme Court ruled to stop the recount of ballots in that state. It would be safe to say that a healthy fraction of the country did not view Bush’s win as legitimate; in July 2001, only 48% of respondents in a Gallup poll believed that Bush had won “fair and square.” This election continues to be a raw nerve for both conservatives and liberals.
Barack Obama was the first president to win an outright majority of the popular vote in both of his elections. He won the electoral college by a healthy amount as well. Nonetheless, far-right conspiracy theorists, amplified by Trump, began questioning whether Obama was born in the United States. Even after Obama produced his long-form birth certificate, only 28% of Republicans polled agreed that Obama was a US citizen.
Trump lost the popular vote but won the electoral college in a surprise 2016 victory. The FBI had already started an investigation into whether the Trump campaign was coordinating with the Russian government. That investigation morphed into the Mueller probe, which demonstrated that Russia did attempt to interfere in the 2016 election and elements of the Trump campaign were receptive to that interference. Even though the Mueller probe failed to find evidence of overt coordination, the allegations cast a shadow over the Trump administration throughout its four years. Indeed, that allegation explains Trump’s recent hirings and firings in the national security community.
Biden will handle it well
Trump reacted to delegitimization efforts poorly. It is worth noting, however, that Obama, Bush and Clinton all handled the efforts directed at them with a lot more poise and discipline — to their political benefit. Whatever you think of those presidents, they accomplished a lot of their political objectives and were able to rise above attempts to delegitimise their administrations. There is every indication that Biden will respond in the same way.
Finally, political science research suggests that not too much should be read into poll responses that question the legitimacy of election victories. As one recent research paper noted: “some of the misinformation reported in surveys is the result of partisan cheerleading rather than genuinely held misperceptions.” In other words, even GOP partisans know that Biden won the election, but they resent having to acknowledge this to a pollster and therefore will not do it.
I wish we lived in a country where the losing side conceded gracefully and told pollsters that they recognised the legitimacy of the winner’s victory, but it just ain’t so. David Greenberg is right when he writes, “the perception by some substantial part of the electorate that the American president is illegitimate is no longer an aberration in American politics. It is normal.”
The mistake observers are making about 2020 is that this is somehow a new phenomenon. It is not.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University