“Maricopa!” or maybe “Philadelphia!” is on its way to becoming the next “Benghazi!”
There is good reason to think that Joe Biden got enough votes to defeat Donald Trump in the Electoral College and become the next president. But with the final result dependent on a few key states where officials are still counting ballots, the Trump campaign and its allies are out in force, accusing Democrats of stealing the election.
“The Democrats know the only way to win this election is to cheat in Pennsylvania … this is fraud,” Eric Trump said at a press conference on Wednesday, before making claims about finding pro-Trump ballots in ditches and Biden supporters posting propaganda inside polling places.
Pam Bondi, the Trump campaign adviser and former Republican Florida attorney general, said in a television interview that “we have evidence of cheating” in Pennsylvania and talked about “fake ballots” and “ballots being dumped.”
The interview was on Fox News, where some of the Trumpier hosts have been pushing the same kinds of theories. Tucker Carlson said that “clearly corrupted city bureaucrats” are rigging the count, while Laura Ingraham warned about “unverifiable dumps of votes” showing up in the official Biden tallies.
There is, to be clear, no evidence of fraud. The supposedly suspicious nature of the tallying, with Trump falling behind as officials work through the backlog of mail-in ballots that largely favor Biden, is nothing more than the predictable ― and predicted ― consequence of the pandemic and how some state-level Republicans insisted the election play out.
GOP officials in several states rebuffed requests to start counting mail-in ballots before Election Day, even though everybody knew that the pandemic meant the states would have to process an unprecedented number of them. That helps explain why the count is taking so long in Pennsylvania, for example.
Conservatives are taking advantage of the interregnum to make arguments about supposedly implausible voter turnout, or election workers allegedly burning ballots, or preventing Republican observers from watching the counts.
The claims have fallen apart with even mild scrutiny, and in one particularly telling episode, a group of Trump advisers in Las Vegas Thursday morning refused to answer (and escaped into a van) when MSNBC host Jacob Soboroff asked them to provide evidence of the alleged ballot fraud.
But the stories keep spreading anyway. An example is “Sharpiegate,” the theory that election officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, gave voters markers that would spoil ballots as ink seeped through the paper.
The theory makes no sense at all. Officials have made clear that Sharpies would work just fine and that, in any event, they have a way to count ballots with such problems. It’s also not self-evident how officials in Maricopa could selectively give the markers to Trump voters.
The story went viral anyway ― including on the Facebook page for a group called “Stop the Steal,” which had more than 300,000 members with a few hundred or so joining every minute before Facebook shut it down on Thursday. Some were bots, undoubtedly, but some just as surely were not.
Conspiracy Theories Serve A Long-Term Purpose, Too
The short-term goal for Trump and his allies is to find some way of extracting a victory ― if not through official legal challenges, then maybe by creating enough chaos and confusion that they can persuade friendly state legislatures to appoint pro-Trump electors in defiance of the offical returns. That effort faces some pretty steep odds, of course.
But the conspiracy theories could serve some long-term purposes as well ― for Trump, who could use the myth of a stolen election to fuel a political comeback, and for Republicans in Congress, who could weaponize it to undermine a Biden presidency.
Good candidates for that role are Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Johnson is chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; Portman, according to Politico, will succeed him assuming Republicans hold the Senate. Both were advocates for investigating Benghazi (the deaths of several Americans in a deadly attack on an embassy in Libya) back in the day.
It’s not hard ― actually, it’s too easy ― to imagine their committee convening hearings on the 2020 election count.
These hearings would be no more likely to produce incriminating evidence than the Benghazi hearings or any other right-wing fishing expedition. But they could create a sense that Biden didn’t really get the support of the American people, which would reinforce an argument from more respectable Republicans that Biden’s election isn’t an indicator of the popular will ― and that, as a result, Republicans can obstruct his agenda and even his basic ability to govern with impunity.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already sending that signal, via an anonymous adviser who told Axios that the Senate would block Biden Cabinet appointments if they are not sufficiently centrist. Although Biden could always rely heavily on naming acting Cabinet officials and making recess appointments, McConnell’s statement is a sign of how he’s thinking and a reminder of how he conducted himself during the Obama presidency.
To be clear, the margins in the swing states really are razor-thin. That’s why the final election outcome remains in doubt. But by the time it is done, Biden could win 306 electoral votes, which would be as many as Trump got in 2016 and more than George W. Bush got in either 2000 or 2004.
And the close state counts that have left the Electoral College in doubt make it easy to overlook the significance of Biden’s showing in the popular vote. Biden could end up with about 52%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. That would be more than Trump or George W. Bush ever got ― and even Ronald Reagan in 1980, for that matter.
The comparisons to George W. Bush and Trump are especially interesting because they both lost the popular vote. Bush in 2000 got about 500,000 fewer votes than Democratic nominee Al Gore; Trump got almost 3 million fewer than Hillary Clinton.
And in both cases, the elections actually were tainted. Ballot problems famously spoiled pro-Gore votes in Florida and a potentially decisive recount was shut down by five Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court; Trump won while Russian operatives (with or without inside help from Trump associates) were trying actively to tip the outcome toward him.
These circumstances didn’t stop either Bush, Trump, or their Republican allies in Congress from claiming mandates and immediately pursuing ambitious agendas, which for Bush was a massive tax cut for the rich and for Trump was repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Bush succeeded. Trump failed. But the thinking was the same: Do whatever it takes to win, paying no attention to facts or what the public actually wants.
Now, a similar effort appears to be underway. Trump and his allies want to hold onto the presidency. If they can’t do that, they want to make sure Biden can’t do anything with it.
Update: A previous version of this article stated that Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson will likely remain chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee if Republicans retain control of the Senate. However, Politico has since reported Ohio Sen. Rob Portman will succeed him.