Days before the 2016 election, candidate Donald Trump stood before a throng of ecstatic followers and said, "I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win." Indeed he did pull out a narrow electoral victory, even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million. There was plenty of carping. There were street protests. But nobody stormed the U.S. Capitol or enlisted Democratic officials in various states to sign fraudulent elector statements in the hopes of getting Congress to overturn the result in defiance of the Constitution. Clinton conceded the next day, although no one's pretending she was happy about it. Democrats grumbled about the antiquated system that elected the last two Republican presidents with a minority of the popular vote, but everyone moved on.
There's no need to recapitulate what happened in 2020. We are all too aware of it, mostly because Trump and his allies won't let anyone forget it. He made it clear from the beginning that it was simply not possible for him to lose and now we can see that he's convinced a large number of candidates for office, as well as their voters, that it holds true for them too. The Big Lie is alive and well.
According to FiveThirtyEight, 60% of American voters have an election denier on the ballot where they live. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported over the weekend about election deniers running for office around the country who have refused to say whether they will accept the results of their own upcoming elections. The Post surveyed 19 important statewide races, and only seven Republican candidates said they would accept the results while 18 of the 19 Democrats said they would. (The other Democrat didn't respond.) The Times noted that a few of those GOP candidates seem to be posturing in order to appeal to Trump voters who've bought into the big lie, quoting an aide who said on background that their candidate would certainly accept the results but just couldn't say so in public. That's what passes for integrity in Republican politics these days.
Amusingly, a number of defeated Republicans in this year's primary elections have claimed that the votes were rigged, proving just how deep this conspiracy goes. Axios reports that losing GOP candidates in Michigan, Colorado, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Florida have all claimed their elections were tainted. Even some winners complained. Arizona's GOP nominee for secretary of state, state Rep. Mark Finchem, a hardcore 2020 election denier, claimed that "people all over the state [are] saying, 'I've gotten ballots that I didn't ask for.'" Presumably he doesn't believe his own primary win was dubious, but these people are so far down the rabbit hole that you never know.
There has also been a recent spate of articles from various political number-crunchers warning that Democrats should be wary of getting it into their heads that they can win this midterm election. The momentum certainly seems to be moving their way, but these observers suggest that's a mirage: Polling in both 2016 and 2020 failed to capture Republican voters, who showed up in greater numbers than expected. (In the 2018 midterms the polls were pretty accurate. But because historically the party in power loses seats in midterm elections, somehow that doesn't count.)
Data analysts don't know what's going on with these invisible or "shy" Republican voters, but at least one pollster — who is generally considered right-leaning — says it's because GOP voters are sensitive to what strangers who call them on the phone might think of them:
\u201cIn 2016 Trump supporters were called \u201cDeplorables\u201d and other unflattering names. This was a major contributor to the \u201cshy Trump voter\u201d phenomenon that \u201cmost\u201d polling missed which resulted in a major loss in public confidence for polling flowing the election.\u201d— Robert C. Cahaly (@Robert C. Cahaly) 1663403055
\u201cNow that the Biden administration has essentially classified \u201cMAGA Republicans\u201d as a threat to democracy marshaling federal law enforcement to focus on them. This move has created a new type of voter that will be even harder to poll or even estimate.\u201d— Robert C. Cahaly (@Robert C. Cahaly) 1663403055
He claims that Joe Biden's comments have created an "army" of these hidden voters who are impossible to poll, "even for us." These shy voters aren't like the MAGA fans who put Trump flags on their pickup trucks, but according to this theory they are so traumatized on behalf of the good folks who wear "Fuck your feelings" T-shirts in public and worship a man who calls Democrats, "disgusting," "depraved," "treasonous" and every other gross insult known to man that they won't even admit to a pollster who they are going to vote for.
This pollster's data may be valid, but his analysis is just an personal opinion. In my opinion, it's highly doubtful that GOP voters aren't responding to pollsters because their feelings got hurt. Trump voters don't strike me as shrinking violets. I would guess they don't respond because Trump has told them that you can't trust anyone but him and his designated associates. Since he says any poll that shows he isn't winning by a landslide is in the tank, and all polls, even the right-leaning ones, do show that from time to time, his followers are required to discount and distrust all polling. They have swallowed Trump's belief that the only way Democrats can win is by cheating and that any polls which show Republicans losing are by definition rigged. Why participate in a rigged game?
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight threw some cold water on this whole thing anyway, noting that none of this is quite as predictable as one might think:
People's concerns about the polls stem mostly from a sample of exactly two elections, 2020 and 2016. You can point out that polls also had a Democratic bias in 2014. But, of course, they had a Republican bias in 2012, were largely unbiased in 2018, and have either tended to be unbiased or had a Republican bias in recent special elections.
True, in 2020 and 2016, polls were off the mark in a large number of races and states. But the whole notion of a systematic polling error is that it's, well, systematic: It affects nearly all races, or at least the large majority of them. There just isn't a meaningful sample size to work with here, or anything close to it.
The consequences of this belief that the polls are definitely wrong, however, could be profound. It feeds into the idea that if Democrats do manage to hold onto one or both houses of Congress — even Silver's site forecasts that it's fairly likely they will win the Senate — it cannot be legitimate. It will give all those election deniers still more fodder for the belief that they're being cheated, and we'll see yet more lies by cynical GOP politicians who see an upside to losing: It's a chance to delegitimize a Democratic majority and nurse the grievance and delusions of their Trump-crazed base. OK, it's not quite as good as winning, but it pays the bills — and our already fragile democracy frays just a little bit more.