Base Republican voters have been in conflict with reality for some time now. Most major problems facing the country–be it climate change, systemic racism, opioid addiction, monopolization, healthcare costs, pandemics, gun violence, economic inequality and beyond–no longer lend themselves to conservative solutions. Maintaining allegiance to conservative ideas in the face of their obsolescence has required an array of infotainment networks that function more as cult propaganda centers than tailored news channels or talk shows. The result has been a political party ever more hostile to science, reliant on ephemeral targets for fear and hatred (does anyone remember the caravans or MS13?) and replete with a dizzying array of dangerous and irresponsible conspiracy theories. This in turn has created a political space in which millions of Americans no longer accept simple truths as fact.
Now, with just nine days until the votes are tallied, Republicans are also at war with the science of polling. Simply put, all the available data suggest that Trump is very likely to lose. But Republicans are convinced of the opposite.
Yes, Trump could still win if everything breaks his way. But it would be foolhardy, even delusional, to count on it. Elliot Morris and the team at The Economist currently give Biden a 91% chance of victory. Nate Silver and the FiveThirtyEight team are only slightly more generous to Trump, giving him a paltry 13% chance of winning. The RealClearPolitics polling average–which weights significantly to Republicans by giving conservative outlier pollsters like Rasmussen and Trafalgar equal weight with more reputable pollsters while discounting more Democratic-leaning trackers–currently assumes Biden will win a landslide 357 electoral votes. The Biden campaign is sending him to Georgia in the final days, a sign that the campaign sees internal polling numbers it likes and wants to expand the map. Current early vote totals showing strong youth and Democratic turnout–including among those who did not vote in 2016–are suggestive of a good result for Biden. Many GOP operatives and some politicians are already suggesting a “bloodbath” for Republicans and hedging their bets on a Trump loss as well.
Even if you desperately want Trump to win, a sober look at reality would suggest that you should expect the worst on election night but hope to be pleasantly surprised. But Republicans are not doing that. They are overwhelmingly convinced that Trump will win:
Regardless of whom they personally support, 56% of Americans expect Trump to prevail over Biden in the November election, while 40% think Biden will win. Although majorities of partisans think their party’s candidate will win, Republicans are more likely to believe Trump will win (90%) than Democrats are to think Biden will (73%). Fifty-six percent of independents predict that Trump will win.
Nine in ten Republicans expect a Trump win. Out in QAnon land, multiple tweets garnering thousands of likes and retweets are claiming that Trump will win all 50 states. Text and phonebankers for left-leaning causes and candidates are reporting that GOP responders are bullishly taunting volunteers that Trump will win in a landslide. Fox News, Breitbart and AM talk radio are doing nothing to dispel this belief. Donald Trump has told his supporters that the only way he will lose is if Democrats cheat–and they believe him. For well over a year he has been saying that the “real” polls have him ahead. He has falsely been insisting that mail ballots (predominantly used by Democrats in this year of COVID) are rife with fraud, in an attempt to dismiss Democratic votes.
This is a major problem for democracy as we approach what is likely to be a fraught and bitterly contested election and transition period. If Trump loses and refuses to concede the election as he has so far been indicating, the country could be thrown into tumult not just by him and his allies in the courts, but by a conservative base that was adamantly expecting Trump to win in a rout.
Republican voters have been primed to believe that every reputable poll is a lie, that official elections results are not to be trusted, and that they have a silent majority millions of voters strong. If 36% of the country’s voters walk into election night with that belief and Biden ends up winning easily with over 350 electoral votes, it is impossible to predict what might happen. Democrats are still reeling over the shock of unexpected defeat in 2016 several four years later–even though Trump had a significantly stronger chance of victory. He had led in the polls several times, won only the electoral college but not the popular vote, and there were clear and easily accepted explanations for the defeat. Liberals are dismayed that Trump won and angry at the apartheid electoral systems that put him in office despite winning fewer votes–but they accept his victory as real under the current unfair rules.
Republicans, on the other hand, are likelier to face a bigger and more widespread shock. They are extremely unlikely to accept an adverse outcome as legitimate despite all the evidence signaling their president’s likely defeat. The effect will likely be psychologically traumatic for millions, and the incentives among rightwing infotainment leaders to use that collective trauma and anger for malign effect will be large. It is improbable that triumphalist bullies who have spent the last four years hailing their president as a God Emperor and posting memes about drinking liberal tears will easily accept resounding electoral defeat.
Nor should long-suffering liberals and progressives feel pressured to serve as their grief counselors, despite admonitions from well-meaning centrists who may want to “bring the country together.” Not after the last four years of explicit torment and policy designed to literally harm and kill people in blue states. And not while urgent public policy crises require that the power structures that still give Trumpists anti-democratic control of our government be dismantled. Should Democrats win the White House and Senate, and have the courage to eliminate the filibuster, add states to the union, rebalance the courts and such as they must, it will only fuel conservative rage and despair. Democrats should work to improve the lives of everyone across the country in red areas and blue, Trump and Biden voters alike. But they have no obligation to coddle their bigotries or political pathologies.
The greatest danger, of course, is the potential for organized violence. Even now, white supremacist groups have been implicated in agent provacateur actions during the recent Black Lives Matter protests and even attempted to kidnap Democratic elected officials over COVID restrictions. If Democrats win all branches of government and increase measures to counteract the virus while Trump refuses to concede well into 2021, and his base believes the election was fraudulent, our already fragile democracy could reach a breaking point.
There is not much Democrats can do about this. It falls on responsible Republican leaders–if there are any left–to attempt to break through the wall of disinformation and shine the light of reality onto the GOP base before it’s too late.