Welcome to a special edition of FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
Postponing the election, of course, is not something the president can legally do. But it’s also kind of besides the point. Trump has already been fighting to delegitimize the results come November, claiming that voting by mail can lead to mass voter fraud.
So let’s dive into that. How would you describe Trump’s efforts to throw November’s results into question? He did something similar in 2016 when facing Hillary Clinton. How is this different?
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Well, in many ways it’s exactly what Trump was doing in 2016. It’s just that he’s president now. And thus, his words are even more damaging (and they were already very damaging in 2016).
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): There’s also a very important distinction here. Before, Trump was just a candidate casting doubt on the election, but now he’s a sitting president doing that.
julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’d characterize this as an exercise in control and influence over his party and the news cycle. Everyone is forced to respond to what he says, even if they’re not responding positively. Trump isn’t effective at that many aspects of the job, but he’s pretty effective at agenda control.
clare.malone: I would also say that calling for the delay of the actual vote feels VERY dictatorial in nature. Like, we’ve perversely gotten used to the “fake votes,” “fake news” stuff. But encouraging a change in the election date feels sort of explicitly over a line.
sarah: And to ask a somewhat obvious question — but one that has to be asked — this is another unprecedented, norm-defying and democratic-value jeopardizing moment, right? To put it another way, has another sitting president ever done this?
julia_azari: I’m always nervous about the “never” question with past presidents, but yeah, most presidents have not been willing to take on all the formal rules, the legal system and other branches of government while in office. Congress — which has the power to change the date of an election — used to be stronger, too, and there was no Twitter. My go-to example for this is we still had a presidential election in 1864, during the Civil War.
geoffrey.skelley: And in modern times, incumbents who have lost reelection have exited office without too much of a fuss. Take George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, or if we go further back, Herbert Hoover. Granted, incumbents don’t often lose. So it’s important to note that each of those incumbents lost decisively, meaning there wasn’t much to stand on even if they had wanted to fight the result. But it’s not like Gerald Ford created a stir in 1976 when he lost narrowly.
julia_azari: Candidates have also conceded even when the election was a mess. See Al Gore in 2000, Samuel Tilden in 1876.1
sarah: But on this question of actually changing the election date. How much power does Trump have to do that?
clare.malone: He does not have the power to change the date of the election.
julia_azari: None. It’s up to Congress, and elections are administered by the states.
clare.malone: Here’s my question, though: What happens if Trump refuses to leave the White House on Jan. 20, and there are no official election results at that point?
Like, in that dire scenario (Trump not leaving, no clear winner) does House Speaker Nancy Pelosi become president and someone has to haul him out of the building?
geoffrey.skelley: If for some reason the Electoral College hasn’t acted or the electoral votes haven’t been certified by Congress, Trump’s term ends on Jan. 20, according to the 20th Amendment. So there’d be an acting president, who would be the Speaker of the House per the order set out by the Presidential Succession Act — assuming congressional elections occurred.
But of course, that’s how it’s written, not how it might go.
sarah: Did someone mention 🥁the 20th amendment🥁?
julia_azari: I keep imagining this scenario, and I have to say, I have a hard time imagining that Trump refuses to leave office. I don’t want to be complacent, but like a lot of people on Twitter, Trump seems to be comfortable tweeting out bold ideas and not as great at standing firm under political pressure.
So as I see it, there would be a couple of components needed for this to actually happen. There would be the political pressure — what are advisors, including Jared and Ivanka, telling him to do? This would help us understand if there are people who have influence over Trump who have some interest in seeing the system remain intact and legitimate.
The second thing would be the actual formal power — does the Secret Service force him out? Does the military gets involved? These are wild scenarios.
I would be surprised if these institutions don’t have plans for this somewhere, even if they are not publicly known.
geoffrey.skelley: Not to take things down an even darker road, but in this scenario, I think it’s important to consider how other institutions like the military act and how the president’s supporters behave in the face of attempts to delegitimize the election results.
clare.malone: Totally. I think that’s where many people’s minds go, too. And as a country, I think we are deeply uncomfortable (and rightly so) with the military being involved with a power transition. I mean, I personally find it incredibly chilling to consider.
geoffrey.skelley: I’ve seen Seven Days In May. Great movie but, uh yeah, disturbing.
But it’s a sign of the times when you have Biden actually saying he thinks the military would escort Trump out of the White House if he refused to leave.
sarah: Because that’s the thing, as you’re all saying, there are mechanisms via the 20th amendment to ensure Trump leaves office. But there’s still a very real question of how some of this would actually be enforced if it came to this, right?
julia_azari: Exactly. The 20th amendment was ratified to shorten the period between the presidential election in November and the inauguration, which had been in March. There was growing instability around the time it was ratified, after the 1932 election, and that’s some of what it intended to deal with, but it wasn’t really designed with this problem in mind.
I’m trying to stake out the ground that acknowledges a lot of people won’t have much incentive to let Trump violate the rules in this way.
clare.malone: Julia, when you say that a lot of people won’t have incentive to let Trump act contrary to the rules, whom are you thinking of?
julia_azari: I guess I’m thinking of people who might want to run for president later.
julia_azari: Or make money off the Trump brand. This includes his kids, and yeah, other Republicans.
clare.malone: That is, people with sway over him. Got it.
julia_azari: Military leaders, too, as we saw many of them push back after the D.C. protesters incident in June.
sarah: So let’s talk about the other big doomsday scenario here: The results aren’t considered legitimate. What are the signs that that idea is already taking root?
julia_azari: That’s a good way to frame that, but I’m not sure there are signs that it’s taking root any more than it’s sorta been lurking in the conversation since 2016 — and even before.
geoffrey.skelley: In the face of COVID-19, states are expanding absentee voting and, in some cases, vote-by-mail. But the president is making the case that mailed ballots are illegitimate and highly vulnerable to fraud — this is not true, of course, but by casting aspersions, he’s setting up the potential for delegitimizing the results as they come in, on and after Election Day. And the after part is probably what really matters, especially if the election is close.
clare.malone: Yeah, I was going to say, we’ve spent the past 4 to 5 years conditioning a certain segment of the population to distrust most everything in American life, unless it comes from the president’s mouth.
Someone shared this 2017 survey that found that around half of Republicans would be ok with delaying the 2020 election. Granted, the question was framed around whether people would support delaying the election to make sure people weren’t voting illegally (a big claim of Trump’s in 2016). But I still thought that was surprising.
It’s especially striking when you get to 2020, and the questions revolve around the pandemic. I was shocked to see, for instance, the share of Republicans and Democrats who were willing to delay the election because of the pandemic (roughly 39 percent of Americans supported delaying the election, according to that survey from April).
sarah: Yeah … it is mind boggling. That finding is also at least somewhat corroborated in this paper FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman published with the Voter Study Group earlier this year. In an examination of democracy in the U.S., Drutman and his coauthors found that both Republicans and Democrats were open to their preferred presidential candidate “rejecting the legitimacy of the election if they claim credible evidence of illegal voting or foreign interference.” And in that vein, 29 percent of Republicans said it would be appropriate for Trump “to refuse to leave office because he claims that he has credible evidence of illegal voting.”
julia_azari: One quibble with that study, though, knowing I have the utmost respect for Lee and his coauthors, is that each scenario lays out a justification for delaying the election, which I think makes it harder to say no. And I think people’s willingness to tolerate this in practice is conditional on their evaluation of that evidence, the credibility of the claims and the person making the claims. (E.g., Trump, who isn’t very popular.)
clare.malone: Totally fair.
I was pretty shocked in general to see how amenable people were to changing this very foundational thing! Even with the reasonings the survey questions provided them.
julia_azari: I was, too, but I think it’s not unreasonable for people to have limits on how much they trust elections if they think those elections were not administered fairly.
geoffrey.skelley: And if the election is close and a state or two is in doubt, any questions about administration could become explosive. See: the 2000 election.
julia_azari: Right. It’s actually amazing how explosive that wasn’t. But things are different now — I wonder how this plays out if we flip it around.
Let’s say Trump wins.
(I mean, this sorta already happened in 2016. Trump won, yet he went right ahead and tried to delegitimize parts of an election he had won.)
But let’s say it happens again, and he wins narrowly once again? Who questions the results? And would that be the right thing to do?
geoffrey.skelley: Yes, I wanted to bring this up! Trump said there were at least 3 million illegal votes in an election he won — conveniently undoing Clinton’s popular vote margin. And then he set up a task force to investigate fraud after he took office. It found nothing.
julia_azari: But there will likely be this question of “credible evidence,” as they cite in that Voter Study group paper. What if Trump wins, and people were standing in hours-long lines in Black neighborhoods in Ohio?
In other words, I think there will be a question of how much skepticism about elections is reasonable, and how much is chaos?
clare.malone: I think there is just going to be skepticism about this election, full stop.
geoffrey.skelley: I would not discount opponents of Trump taking to the streets in that scenario. A recent simulation by a group of experts about what could happen in these sorts of scenarios did not bring me much comfort. They found that every scenario — Trump winning or losing but someone defying the result — ended in street-level violence and political gridlock.
sarah: Oof. It’s interesting to me, though, that the desire to delegitimize results isn’t purely a Republican thing, as that Voter Study paper found. Democrats also showed signs of also being willing to reject the legitimacy of the election if it helps their preferred candidate.
clare.malone: Stacey Abrams’s non-concession concession speech in 2018 provided an interesting template for a potential Biden response (in case of a loss to Trump).
Though I do think Biden is such a conventional politician and institutionalist that he wouldn’t respond in the same way Abrams did, justified or not.
sarah: Yeah and Biden obviously isn’t waging a campaign of disinformation in the way that Trump is either. But perhaps one unintended effect of all this is, to Clare’s point, that skepticism of the election (depending on its margin) is going to be rampant.
julia_azari: Although Biden seems like … truly angry at times about the Trump presidency. It’s not obvious what the institutionalist move is in that scenario, IMO.
clare.malone: A good point!
julia_azari: I think there’s a strong possibility that skepticism is persistent and embedded in Trumpist ideology and among his followers, but not that widespread if the election is not close.
clare.malone: I mean, let’s go back to 2016.
If Trump had lost, we were all preparing for the launch of Trump TV, a perch from which he would rail for the impeachment of President Clinton.
I can sort of see something similar happening if Trump loses (unless, of course, he’s too tired to start the Trump TV experiment!)
geoffrey.skelley: OANN would love to have him.
julia_azari: Again, I don’t want to be complacent. I spend way too much time on politics Twitter. I spend all my time on politics Twitter.
But if Biden wins by a lot and Trump tweets a bunch, most Americans will just go on about their lives. That’s sorta how 2000 played out, and that was obviously really close and subject to questions, too.
geoffrey.skelley: Thing is, I can’t imagine Trump conceding in a 2000-esque situation in the way Gore eventually did.
clare.malone: Of course, 2000 is the election that a lot of people point to as the start of mistrust in elections as institutions. And like, the era of “voter fraud” alarmism really ramped up under George W. Bush.
julia_azari: But the angry minority has demonstrated that it can drive politics and policy to a great degree. So I don’t want to be complacent, but I do want to be specific in my fears.
clare.malone: So you could say people went on with their lives, but there were corrosive effects.
julia_azari: If he loses, I sometimes imagine that people around Trump will say, “People will say nice things about you if you do a good concession speech,” and so he does. But it’s not encouraging that that’s what it might come to.
clare.malone: Right, the integrity of democratic institutions might come down to a pep talk from “Javanka?”
sarah: So at the outset of this chat, I asked how Trump’s tweet to postpone the election was different from what he’s already done to try and delegitimize November’s result. And we’ve also pointed out that there have been prior points in American history where voters have mistrusted election results.
But I think given the abnormal aspects of Trump’s presidency, it’s easy to point to historical comparisons without really probing whether the moment we’re in doesn’t have a historical comparison, as historian Rick Perlstein did in his tweet, telling the media he didn’t want to do more interviews on how this moment might compare to 1968.
julia_azari: I think Perlstein is right, but I also think that we should be precise about how abnormal politics interacts with normal politics, because that has been the story of the Trump presidency IMO.
clare.malone: So, I mean, I take Rick’s point in this tweet; there’s this instinct that we have to comfort ourselves with history (i.e., American democracy has weathered much worse) but I do think that we sometimes dwell a bit in history without facing the new challenges that Trump presents us.
We sort of have to respect the new paradigm that’s been created and understand that there are limits to what history can teach us in this particular case; i.e., Twitter, plus Trump, plus 20 years of diminishing electoral trust.
geoffrey.skelley: It’s interesting that people would comfort themselves with history — I take little comfort from it. We’ve been on the brink before with the 1876 election, for instance.
julia_azari: I think that’s absolutely true. I don’t see history as a comfort but rather as a guide to how much luck and skill it takes to maneuver through this stuff.
I also think history is helpful because it shows what’s not normal. (And what shouldn’t be, but is.)