Don’t worry, Trump’s claims of a “rigged election” aren’t going to cause chaos

Today’s New York Times features a piece echoing a growing concern in recent weeks: that upon his likely defeat, Donald Trump will attack the results as illegitimate, perhaps fueling a string of havoc and chaos. A few weeks back, Timothy Egan argued that by setting the stage for delegitimization of the election results, Trump is “trying to destabilize the country itself after he’s crushed.”

These are valid concerns, chiefly because Trump’s constant talk of a “rigged election” make it likely we will see the results attacked in unprecedented fashion. But to the extent that this could balloon into something tantamount to “havoc,” a few factors give me pause:

  1. We have no idea how Trump will react to his likely defeat. All the predictions about post-election shenanigans rest on a crucial platform: that Trump will lead the way in attacking the results. Indeed, that looks likely given his rhetoric and the nature of his personality. But we should know by now that the business of predicting Trump’s behavior is a tricky one. It seems equally likely to me that Trump’s arrogance could lead him to react to a loss simply by saying, “Your loss America. I’m moving to Scotland. God help you.” Indeed, Trump leaned toward that direction when he said if he loses he’ll just have “a nice, long vacation.”
  2. The GOP might perform relatively well in down-ballot races. One aspect of these predictions that is often forgotten is that accusing an election of being rigged is no small thing. In particular, you can’t confine the accusation to just the presidential race; a rigged process would have to affect all races on the ballot (presidential, congressional, and local races). At this point, Republicans are in serious danger of losing their advantages in the Senate, House, and state legislatures across the country. If the election proves even remotely favorable to the GOP on any of those fronts — a strong possibility — party leaders aren’t going to have an appetite for attacking those results in favor of a candidate, Trump, that they can’t wait to get rid of. That reality could prevent the claims from becoming anything more than fringe accusations.
  3. The race may not be close. The last time claims of a falty process actually carried weight were after 2000, one of the closest elections in history. But in this case, unless something seriously changes, the election isn’t going to be all that close. Current models have Hillary Clinton winning around 350 electoral votes. Calling that kind of a rout “rigged” is not an easy sell. It will require endless theories about endless states, a prospect that doesn’t lend itself well to widespread acceptance.
  4. It’s hogwash, and there will be no evidence. There’s one final elephant in the room: election fraud is extremely, extremely rare in the United States, and claims that election results are fraudulent have been debunked time and time again. As Egan notes, a study of over 800 million ballots cast between 2000–2014 turned up just 31 cases of voter fraud. This election will be no different. There was similar talk of fraud in Pennsylvania following the 2012 election, but it quickly fizzled out when the claims could not be substantiated.

Rest assured, we will almost certainly hear claims of fraud going forward, if not from Trump then from someone else. But altogether, it will be hard to expand these accusations to anything beyond fringe conspiracy theories you hear about on cable news.

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