Alarm is growing in Democratic circles that the massively unpopular President Trump might connive to keep himself in office past January even if he is voted out. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the party's presumptive nominee, has warned repeatedly that Trump will steal the election. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) on Sunday said he believes the president "plans to install himself in some kind of emergency way to continue to hold onto office." Publications including The Atlantic and The Washington Post have carried stories speculating that Trump will usurp the election or reject its results. Trump himself fed the speculation last week by suggesting the election be delayed — a notion quickly squashed by Republican officeholders across the spectrum.
These warnings are rooted in Trump's clear disregard for American democracy, or any rule that keeps him from getting what he wants. But what if all this doomsaying scares Biden's voters away from the polls? Rick Henderson, editor-in-chief of Carolina Journal — and a friend of mine — raised the question Sunday: "'Responsible' people on both sides seeding doubt about the legitimacy of the election (and possible transfer of power) is nuts," he wrote on Twitter. "If no one trusts the election to be fair, why would anyone want to vote and play a sucker's game?"
Democrats have been worried that their voters won't make it to the polls this fall, but those concerns are mostly rooted in a fear of overconfidence within the party, and GOP voter-suppression efforts. There hasn't been much concern — publicly, at least — that voters will conclude American democracy is already dead and thus it's not worth the effort of casting a ballot.
But this is a possibility. We know, for example, that when voters feel like they already know the outcome of an election, they are less likely to cast a ballot. As the Pew Research Center reported in 2018, "research shows that when people aren't sure who will win an election, they vote at higher rates." This is why most TV networks pledge not to call elections until polls have closed, even if the outcome is cleared. They don't want to dampen turnout.
The research on this subject is helpful in guiding how we think about how political rhetoric affects voter turnout, but it can't really tell us how 2020 voters will behave in the face of Trump's antidemocratic inclinations, or the warnings about those inclinations. After all, these are unprecedented circumstances. This is the first election in modern memory in which there is widespread belief and worry that the incumbent won't observe the outcome if he loses. Richard Nixon cheated in the 1972 election, but he didn't need to — and when the time came for him to abandon the White House, he did so. We got comfortable with the idea that the transfer of power would be a peaceful process, until all of the sudden we weren't.
All of us — politicians, activists, the media, voters — are playing 2020 by ear.
There is already some reason to be concerned about Democratic turnout this year. Recent polls suggest that, when it comes to voter enthusiasm, Biden lags Trump in key battleground states. That could mean Democrats are less likely to vote in November. Or it could mean very little. Democratic voters may have to hold their noses at the ballot box, but they'll still cast a vote for Biden. As CBS News' Kabir Khanna observed, "an unenthusiastic vote … counts just the same as an enthusiastic one." Indeed, it seems a fair number of likely Biden voters are settling for him not because they love him or his potential policies, but because they see him as a "safe" candidate in a time of great peril.
Still, I don't want to discount the danger of voters being psyched out by all the "end of democracy" talk — it would be a terrible thing if those concerns became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It's an unavoidable risk, though. The problems facing American democracy — of voter suppression, of mail suppression, of efforts to sow doubt about the outcome — are too evident and too great to ignore. This is not a normal election. The president welcomed Russia's help in 2016, he sought Ukraine's help in 2020, and his advisers seem reluctant at best to rule out accepting additional foreign interference. There are no apparent limits on the president's willingness to keep himself in power. The integrity of American democracy is under attack. That is one of the biggest issues of this election, and it's important that all citizens are aware of it, no matter how it affects their vote.
Democrats should prepare for the worst from Trump in November, and continue to sound the alarm about his behavior, while simultaneously working like hell to turn out their voters — and that effort includes not letting voters get so discouraged they don't vote. American democracy isn't dead yet, I hope. Giving up will only hasten its demise.
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