Donald Trump's repeated exhortations that the system is "rigged," including his repeated warnings at rallies that "we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us," has set off alarm bells among political observers.
The widespread concern among the press and politicians of both parties that his characterization has gone beyond the pale of civil political discourse and democratic norms — and seems fundamentally ungrounded given the general absence of widespread fraud or manipulation of the election system — prompted Chris Wallace of Fox News in the third debate to press Trump on the issue: "There is a tradition in this country — in fact, one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power, and no matter how hard fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner ... Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?" To which Trump now famously replied, "I'll keep you in suspense, okay?"
As with so many other instances of Trump's rhetoric, results from the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll demonstrate the existence of a credulous audience, in this case for his claims about the unreliability of the electoral system. This audience includes — primarily — his supporters, but actually extends somewhat beyond this group (who is increasingly illustrating a great capacity for credulity) to others not under his spell for reasons of personality or partisanship. This is likely an artifact, in Texas and in other similar states, of an extended period of equally fact-challenged claims that voter fraud and other voting irregularities are not merely evident but "rampant."
Trump's most ready audience is, not surprisingly, his supporters, particularly when it comes to suspicions that there are concerted efforts to commit election fraud. Among Trump voters:
· 92 percent say that people voting who are ineligible is an "extremely" or "somewhat" serious problem
· 84 percent say the same of people voting multiple times
· 81 percent say the same of votes being counted inaccurately
· Interestingly, only 68 percent are worried about voting machines being hacked by a foreign or bad actor
By and large, Texas Republicans agree, though at relatively lower rates:
· 84 percent say ineligible voters are an "extremely" or "somewhat" serious problem
· 78 percent say the same about people voting multiple times
· 72 percent say the same about votes being counted inaccurately
· 62 percent say the same about the hacking of voting machines
Yet suspicions of the vulnerability of the process to institutional breakdown, or even subversion by bad actors, extends beyond Trump voters and Republican partisans for whom the issue has been framed in partisan terms primed by their elected leaders for a long time. Overall, a majority of registered voters in Texas think that each of these potential problems with the electoral system is an "extremely" or "somewhat" serious problem. Approximately one-quarter of Democrats thinks that way with respect to ineligible voting and people voting multiple times, 48 percent with respect to votes being counted inaccurately and a majority (54 percent) with respect to hacking.
The manipulation of the electoral process is part of the larger view of the "rigged system" that Trump and his loyalists invoke. In this telling, it is not just that the election is being stolen through the process of vote casting and counting but also through a coordinated effort by the media to "[poison] the minds of the voters" as part of a larger national, or possibly international, cabal to put Clinton in the White House on the part of moneyed interests.
But Trump's conspiratorial suspicions of the electoral system in particular cut to the heart of the process in a way that is more fundamental than are familiar efforts to paint the liberal media as being in cahoots with the Clinton campaign or the global power elite more generally. Fostering doubts about the validity of the election process, the casting of ballots and the broad belief that the process is an accurate reflection of the electorate's preferences fans doubts about the basic legitimacy of the process that the political system depends on to function.
Trump's willingness to attack the legitimacy of the system thrusts more conventional political leaders who have danced on the edge of this knife in a difficult spot far removed from the familiar rubric of run-of-the-mill partisan combat.
In Texas, it's one thing to spar with Democrats over a voter identification law by invoking the specter of rampant voting fraud or — failing that — the principle that any fraud, no matter how imperceptible, is too much. The latter position, however idealized and different from the way the courts have viewed Texas' efforts to protect the vote, at least gestures in the direction of exalting the centrality of clean, valid elections to maintain the legitimacy of the political system.
But Trump's hyperbolic refactoring of this political rhetoric has put the state's leadership — including the official most directly in charge of the voting process in the state, Secretary of State Carlos Cascos — in a far more intellectually and politically precarious position. After more than a decade of fomenting suspicions about the voting process, the GOP leadership find themselves called upon to defend the overall integrity of a process that has delivered most of the political system to their party over the very same time period.
One might wonder if they are surprised to find that their voters are actually taking their rhetoric so seriously.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.