What if President Obama wins re-election and Republicans don’t believe it?
The question isn’t far-fetched. For several weeks, we have seen Republicans challenge the veracity of a number of election-related facts, and the outcome of the presidential election may be no different.
First, some Republicans claimed that public opinion polls were all skewed to show an Obama lead. As Slate reported, 71 percent of self-identified Republicans and 84 percent of Tea Partiers believe in the skew. Republicans confidently claim that the polls are oversampling Democrats, not realizing that these are self-reported party identifications, which rise and fall with candidates’ support.
Distrust of the polls is not a new phenomenon, and it is not confined to Republicans. As Nate Silver pointed out, when Democrats were behind in 2004 they believed the polls were skewed toward Republicans. Fortunately, the Romney debate performance last week apparently was enough to “unskew” the latest numbers.
Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a relatively rosy jobs report, which not only reported better-than-expected hiring for September but also upward revisions for earlier months. Soon thereafter, a number of Republicans, including former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, questioned whether or not the numbers were accurate. Welch tweeted: “Unbelievable jobs numbers ... these Chicago guys will do anything … can't debate so change number.” What evidence did Welch have? Nada.
This week features what conservative blogs are touting as an “explosive” new report suggesting that the Obama campaign is illegally accepting massive foreign contributions via credit card. The so-called proof comes from a number of foreign visits to the Obama campaign website, the lack of any federal requirement to publicly disclose contributions from individuals who give less than $200 overall, and the Obama campaign’s supposed failure to use credit card verification tools to make sure the contributions are coming from inside the United States.
Never mind that the Obama campaign has denied similar reports in the past and has confirmed it does use the verification tools; that an extensive Federal Election Commission audit of the 2008 Obama campaign found no evidence of illegal foreign contributions; that foreign visits to the website does not mean that foreign contributions are being made; and that U.S. citizens (including those in the military) living abroad have the right to contribute to federal campaigns. The claims are a way to delegitimize the Obama campaign, even as Republican leaders in Congress stymie efforts to fix our broken disclosure laws and argue for less disclosure of campaign finance information.
All of these conspiracy theories—like the earlier birther controversies—indicate that if we are unlucky enough to have a very close election in November in which President Obama ekes out a victory, we can expect Republicans to question the election results, too. We’ll have the Fraudulent Fraud Squad telling us that Democrats used voter fraud to steal the election. Hucksters like John Fund will point to “bizarre” anomalies in vote totals from Democratic areas and tout new conspiracy theories. Social media will likely fan the flames.
Unfortunately, as I argue in The Voting Wars, we run our elections so badly that there will be plenty of things for Republicans to complain about: partisan election officials, broken voting machines, unclear rules and controversial court decisions, inconsistencies between voter registration totals, exit polls, and the final voting tally.
Now the cause of many election problems almost certainly will be incompetence and not malfeasance, but that’s a hard argument to sell to people on the wrong end of a close election. Since 2000, public opinion on the fairness of elections is volatile. In 1996, before the 2000 Florida meltdown ending with the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, about 10 percent of people believed the way the election was run was somewhat or very unfair, with almost no difference in Republican views and Democratic views. By 2004, when George W. Bush won re-election over John Kerry, roughly 22 percent of Democrats thought the way the election was run was unfair compared with about 3 percent of Republicans. Yet in the contested Washington state election in 2004, when the courts handed the governorship to a Democrat after a Republican was first declared the winner, 68 percent of Republicans compared with only 27 percent of Democrats thought the way the election was run was unfair.
The lesson from these statistics is simple. If my guy won, the election was fair and square. If your guy won, there must have been some kind of chicanery.
This campaign season, Republicans seem more apt to buy the conspiracy theories than Democrats. Maybe it is because Romney has generally been behind in the polls. Maybe Democrats will start getting paranoid if Romney’s new lead sticks. There was certainly paranoia from Democrats in 2004 (rebutted by a report issued by Rep. John Conyers) that Republicans stole the election in Ohio. We’ll have to wait and see.
But at this point I’m more concerned about Republicans not buying the final outcome than Democrats. If Obama wins a second term, polarization and partisanship will only get worse if Republicans do not believe Obama legitimately won re-election. It is reminiscent of pre-9/11 Democrats’ views of the legitimacy of George Bush’s presidency.
If you think politics is ugly now and that the truth has been a casualty in the campaign, just wait for November. If it is another squeaker, the election truthers will be front and center.