Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Sunday, The Washington Post published leaked audio of an hour-long conversation President Trump had with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, where he urged the Republican to “find” enough votes to overturn the result in Georgia and declare him the winner.
This story has captured headlines, as it is by far Trump’s most brazen attempt to overturn November’s results, although it is hardly his first time trying to do so. Trump has repeatedly tried to cast doubt on the election results since Biden was declared the winner on Nov. 7, citing false claims of voter fraud and launching countless futile lawsuits to try and overturn the election. And now as Congress prepares to vote on Jan. 6 to certify the election results in what should be a largely ceremonial, low-key affair, a faction of GOP senators plans to mount a protest vote, even though it is destined to fail.
There is no question that this is bad for democracy — polls have found a record number of Americans distrust the election results — but let’s talk through some of the biggest consequences of this push to delegitimize the results, in addition to whether this jeopardizes Trump’s role as the de facto party leader once he’s left the presidency.
To start, what do you view as the biggest consequence of all this?
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I think the biggest potential danger is that in any election where the Republicans earn fewer votes, they will make unfounded and exaggerated claims of voting irregularities and fraud and try to toss out or overturn the results. No election is conducted perfectly, but using minor problems as a pretext for invalidating the outcome is a huge problem. You can’t have a democracy if one of the main parties can’t admit defeat.
I am really worried about this in the context of these Georgia Senate runoff races. If Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both win their races, that would give Democrats total control of Congress. So will Republicans be able to accept losing these races if they do? Or will there be an endless stream of lawsuits trying to prevent Ossoff and Warnock from being seated?
julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Biggest consequence: This splits the GOP and deepens the dilemma for Republicans (and possibly Democrats) about how to deal with the other party. Namely, can they continue to thread the needle in arguing that the other party’s constitutional and political views are illegitimate, but the processes are legitimate and thus they sometimes win? Or will the other party’s victories, as Perry suggests, not be tolerated?
I don’t want to “both sides” this — obviously, the Democrats are not the ones creating the current situation, but I think this creates potential dilemmas for them, too, regarding the way they treat the idea of legitimate opposition.
sarah: What are some of the dilemmas you think Democrats face as a result of this, Julia?
julia_azari: Well, take the debate happening over how Democrats should react to this news. There’s a question of whether the House should consider impeachment, which I’m guessing they probably won’t do. On the one hand, I’m not sure impeachment would have much public support, and there’s plenty of other issues that Congress needs to work on. But on the other hand, it does sort of leave the impression that these kinds of norm violations are sort of begrudgingly tolerated.
This will linger after Trump leaves office, too, I think. You’ll have Democrats who want to move on and not ratchet up the stakes of partisan disagreement. And you’ll have others who want to seek accountability for some of the laws that they think were broken by the last administration.
sarah: That’s a really good point, Julia. One thing we saw after the 2016 election was a big drop in the share of Democrats who thought the election was fair and accurate, but it’s nowhere near as big as the drop we’ve seen among Republicans here in 2020. That’s why what you and Perry are hitting on — how the parties handle loss and what that means for voters’ trust in democracy — is the biggest consequence of all this to me.
But maybe you all disagree? Should Democrats be digging into Trump’s behavior more for the reason Julia cited — that this behavior otherwise seems begrudgingly tolerated?
julia_azari: Well, the fact that COVID-19 continues to pose a very real challenge for the country, creates a bit of a problem for Democrats, because if they look like they’re focusing too much time on investigating the Trump administration, they look like they’re ignoring the pandemic and its consequences. But if Democrats try to take this on in a less high-profile way — subpoenaing lower-level officials, etc. — then maybe they’re accused of not being transparent enough.
The impact of this norm-breaking administration isn’t just that it violates these unwritten rules, but that it behaves in ways that make the whole system of usual practices not work. That makes things extra challenging for Democrats.
perry: Questions about what the Biden Department of Justice, congressional Democrats and state attorneys generals do about Trump’s conduct are all still very much up in the air. If there was some criminal activity, he should not be above the law. Perhaps there are some congressional hearings — and maybe even charges filed by the DOJ and/or attorneys generals — involving some Trump associates and maybe Trump himself. I don’t expect Biden to talk about Trump that much, but other actors might weigh in.
sarah: What is the end game here for Trump and Republicans? Trump admitted on the call to Raffensperger that, “I know this phone call is going nowhere.” I know we can’t speak to the president’s state of mind, but what can we point to for why refusing to concede the election has become Trump’s defining stance?
julia_azari: Well, it fits in well into this idea that “grievance politics” have turned into a somewhat successful brand — especially in a place like Georgia, where a history of racist voter suppression informs the context, and where Democratic victories are especially tied to the mobilization of Black voters.
However, I don’t see how having this kind of split within congressional Republicans is helpful to the GOP in the long term.
perry: Trump has lied and cheated in a lot of different venues in his life. That is just the truth. So him insisting that he won an election that he lost is nothing new. He likes to push and push people and see if they will uphold their ethics or bend to his will. For the Republican Party, part of this is just the trajectory they were on anyway, even without Trump at the helm. When you are writing voter laws targeting Black people with “surgical precision” (North Carolina Republicans), making it harder for felons who served their time to vote (Florida Republicans) and gerrymandering in a way that almost makes a mockery of majority rule (Wisconsin Republicans), then unfounded voter fraud charges that aim to disqualify the votes of Black people in particular are just a more aggressive step in an anti-democratic direction.
But part of this is directly tied to Trump. Elected and aspiring Republican officials know he is very connected to the party base, so aligning with Trump is aligning with the party base. So that is why you see Georgia Sen. David Perdue, in light of this phone call, attacking the secretary of state for leaking it, and not Trump for what he said.
julia_azari: I think the intersection of what Perry and I have said is this: “The future of the Republican Party is the division between those who say the quiet part out loud and those who don’t.”
One key difference is that Republicans used to win national majorities with the quiet part. That’s no longer the case. Per Rep. Thomas Massie, who along with six Republican colleagues authored a letter that pointed out the necessity of preserving ‘s comments on the Electoral College, the bullhorn can occasionally at least win a plurality. Matt Glassman, who studies Congress as a senior fellow at Georgetown University, on it:
sarah: If Glassman’s whip count is right, though, we’re still talking about a smallish wing of the GOP, right? In other words, it’s possible that the battle over Trumpism splinters the party, but that maybe the movement loses power?
Calling the integrity of the election results into question has clearly become a litmus test or demonstration of fealty for those in the GOP, but some senators like Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney are speaking out against it. Do you think it’s possible that Trump is ruining his ability to be the party’s leader post-presidency?
julia_azari: Well, our readers should stay tuned for my upcoming piece where I address that question!
But to give you a sneak peek: I think political scientists would frame this question as, “Can populism, on the right, be compatible with participation in a pluralistic, multi-ethnic democracy in which you sometimes lose even when you claim to truly represent the Constitution and the people?” The issue is that a wing of the Republican Party has skirted answering that question for decades now.
perry: Having covered the GOP in the era of Trump for the last six years, I will always bet on the more extreme wing of the party carrying the day. The fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would not acknowledge Biden’s win until mid-December was extraordinary. If I had told anyone that in 2015, they would have thought I was crazy.
The moderate voices in the Republican Party are not well organized, not connected to the party base and have no real compelling leaders, whereas the more extreme voices in the party have Fox News, Newsmax, One America News Network, Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and Trump. I see very little chance that the Republican Party changes its general direction, even if Trump himself recedes.
Would you bet on Sasse winning a battle over the soul of the Republican Party against anyone whose last name is Trump?
julia_azari: I would probably bet a small amount that it is possible, Perry, especially since Sasse seems like a fairly skilled politician and the Trump kids do not.
That said, I generally do not disagree, but I wonder about the sustainability of it all. I think I have some questions on what counts as “moderate” — specifically, considering the GOP, as political scientist and Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Bernstein has been saying for quite some time, is post-policy.
perry: When I say moderate, I mean people like Romney or Sasse, who are quite conservative on policy but generally avoid white identity politics-style moves (attacking Black Lives Matter or immigration reform) and are full-throated in favor of democratic norms and values. Republicans who are moderate on policy, like Susan Collins and Larry Hogan, are basically nonexistent among top Republicans now.
sarah: That’s largely what FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman outlined in his piece on why there are so few moderate Republicans left, Perry.
Given how favorable the down-ballot results were for Republicans, however, one of my takeaways from the 2020 election was that a lot of voters rejected Trump but not necessarily the Republican Party, making it a little harder for me to understand the extent to which the GOP has lost moderate voters.
At the same time, it’s hard for me to see a Romney, Hogan or Sasse winning the 2024 Republican nomination, given the current dynamics we’re seeing play out in the GOP — a largely ceremonial, non-headline grabbing vote on certifying the results of the Electoral College, for instance, has now become this big-stakes issue. That said, I’m not sure we can know at this point the success of Trumpism moving forward. I think, for instance, Democrats will face some real tests in the next four years on whether they can keep their big umbrella coalition of both moderates and very liberal voters happy, and that might create opportunities for more middle of the road or moderate Republicans.
perry: I am not confident who will win the 2024 nomination. I have no idea. I do think in the short term, though, that Trump will remain highly influential in the GOP, as will his style of politics.
I just don’t see an easy path for the Republicans to get off that ramp.
julia_azari: This is a bit of a cop-out but I’d need to think more about the costs and benefits for various Republicans. I’m gonna hold off on 2024 predictions until I get a feel for what politics in the Biden administration looks like. And per my earlier comment about how Trumpism has changed the unwritten rules for everyone, I feel a lot more uncertain about what this will look like now once Trump is gone than I have in previous administrations.
sarah: A lot probably hinges on how the Senate runoffs shake out tomorrow, and like you’ve both said, I really don’t have a sense of how “Trumpism” plays out now. It’s unclear to me, for instance, whether Trump is doing a lot of harm … or if he’s the future of conservatism in the U.S.
But at the very least, can we agree that the lasting consequence of this might be an escalation in how the parties oppose each other when an outcome is in dispute?
I’d argue we’ve seen a ramping up of this in the last decade, but it’s largely been over more procedural things, like the Senate changing rules around judicial appointments, and making it a more partisan affair. But now we have this extreme example — contesting a free and fair election. That ups the ante, no? And it seems as if partisan infighting could get much worse.
perry: I’m not sure I’d say we’ll see an escalation in how the parties oppose each other, at least not yet. I think it’s a change on the Republican side. I don’t expect Biden, for instance, to be fighting his defeat for two months if he clearly lost by a wide electoral margin (not one state by 500 votes) in 2024.
julia_azari: I agree with that, Perry. But I think it’s possible that Democrats will start to feel pressure to both uphold norms and be “reasonable” while also responding to norm violations more forcefully.
perry: I am wary of suggesting we are seeing escalation on both sides, though, as I think we are really only seeing big escalations on the GOP side. And I worry things could get worse. If Republicans controlled the House right now, I would be really worried about this election certification issue, for example.
julia_azari: For me, it comes down to a question of sustainability, and of possible splits among Democrats on this issue. But to be clear, I don’t see any of them supporting the scenario you described, Perry. But I could start to see them play a bit more “constitutional hardball.”
sarah: Yeah, I think Julia is getting at what I meant. I definitely don’t want to “both sides” this. But I do think what Julia touched on earlier, about the mechanisms for expressing legitimate opposition being brushed aside, leaves Democrats in an awkward position, as Trump’s brand of politics has challenged how the whole system works.
julia_azari: My main point here is that the parties are not self-contained, and I don’t think the Democrats have really figured out answers to some of the questions posed by Republicans’ norm-violating behavior (which again, is a situation Democrats did not create).
perry: Julia is getting at an important and complicated question here, and one we kind of saw play out around whether Democrats should add justices to the Supreme Court given Republicans’ rush to nominate Amy Coney Barrett before the election.
Biden was clearly uncomfortable with it, but the party activists really pushed him on the issue. So what does Biden/the Democrats do about what we have seen over the last two months?
Biden, in this pre-inauguration period, is basically ignoring Trump and suggesting Republicans will work with him. And I can’t tell if he is 1) pretending, 2) clueless, or 3) Republicans will actually work with him. But Biden’s theory of the case and how other Democrats approach this issue, not to mention how the two parties interact on this, will be interesting. I truly do not know the answer to this question.
sarah: Exactly. It will be interesting to see how Biden and the Democrats work to address this — or whether Trump’s brand of politics has upended everything.