United States President Trump and his supporters are convinced that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from them. As they question the outcome, Trump and his backers are repeating allegations of illegally cast ballots and widespread election fraud as well as a US media conspiracy to prematurely project an election winner.
And in the wake of a race that featured very close outcomes in several battleground states, Trump wants Americans to believe that he’s been treated unfairly by election administrators and the US media.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell became the highest-ranking Republican to publicly back Trump’s efforts to question the election outcome Monday, saying on the Senate floor, “In the United States of America, all legal ballots must be counted and all illegal allots must not be counted. The process should be transparent and observable, and the courts are here to work through concerns.”
Yet, when faced with the exact same scenario in 2016, when Trump was declared the winner and not the loser, the reactions from Trump and Republicans were quite the opposite, raising the question: how could things be so completely different just because the projected winner is not Trump?
Close states, different outcomes
Within minutes of the Associated Press’s projection that Trump was the winner of the 2016 presidential election, he was on stage reading a victory speech, accepting the outcome of a vote that, like the 2020 one, featured very close outcomes in several battleground states.
Such a beautiful and important evening! The forgotten man and woman will never be forgotten again. We will all come together as never before
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 9, 2016
And Trump’s backers then did not raise one question about the outcome or the fact that the US media called the race before states had certified their election results.
There would even be questions raised by losing candidates and their supporters about voting irregularities and a full-fledged recount in Wisconsin, all of which were dismissed by Trump and his allies at the time.
Calling the recount effort a “sham”, Trump also declared the election set in stone, tweeting, “Hillary Clinton conceded the election when she called me just prior to the victory speech and after the results were in. Nothing will change.”
Hillary Clinton conceded the election when she called me just prior to the victory speech and after the results were in. Nothing will change
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Kellyanne Conway called the Wisconsin recount effort, which was paid for by Green Party candidate Jill Stein but endorsed by the Hillary Clinton campaign, “ridiculously fantastical”.
Fast forward to 2020. Trump has yet to concede the election two days after the AP called the results on Saturday, though it must be noted that a concession is not a legal mechanism or even a requirement, but just a traditional acknowledgement that the election is over and the losing candidate accepts the outcome.
Trump is also openly discussing backing recount efforts in Wisconsin and Georgia and pursuing legal challenges in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada.
In 2016, in addition to verbally denouncing the Wisconsin recount effort at the time, his backers also filed legal challenges to block recount efforts there as well as in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
In contrast to the quick acceptance of the results in 2016, Trump and his supporters are pushing for much more scrutiny this time around.
“When all lawful votes have been counted, recounts finished, and allegations of fraud addressed, we will know who the winner is,” tweeted Missouri Senator Josh Hawley on Saturday. In 2016, Hawley praised Trump’s victory while celebrating his own election as Missouri attorney general on the same day.
So, were the results so different this year that it would provoke such an opposite response? No, they were not.
Trump won Wisconsin by 0.77 percentage points, Pennsylvania by 0.72 points and Michigan by 0.23 points over Clinton in 2016. This year he’s currently behind Joe Biden in Wisconsin by 0.62, Pennsylvania by 0.57, and Michigan by 2.6 percentage points. Similarly tight races, completely different reaction to the outcomes.
“Since when does the Lamestream Media call who our next president will be?” Trump asked in a tweet on Sunday.
Since when does the Lamestream Media call who our next president will be? We have all learned a lot in the last two weeks!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2020
In 2016, the US media’s projection of Trump as victor set off the same chain of events as had been set into motion for decades: after the media’s projection of a winner, the winning candidate would declare victory and losing candidate would concede.
Why should it be any different now? This has been tradition for presidential elections for decades. Waiting for all votes to be counted and certified has not been the trigger to move forward, even though, constitutionally, presidential elections are not official for weeks.
One main reason the business of transferring power begins after a president-elect is declared is the brief two-month period the president-elect has between Election Day in November and Inauguration Day in January to get up and running.
Trump’s team, like that of previous winning candidates, took part in planning his new administration, with the cooperation of the outgoing administration, shortly after the declaration of a winner. This tradition has been in play to ensure an orderly transfer of power, even as questions may remain about the election results.
Trump’s effort to slow down this transition, including the hesitance of one of his administration officials to formally get the transition process started, in contrast to what he and other previous presidents-elect experienced, flies in the face of tradition.
Trump has been alleging “rigged” elections for years, dating back to 2016, when he suggested after his projected Electoral College victory that he would have won the popular vote, too, “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”. Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by just over 2.8 million votes.
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
He went so far as to establish an election integrity commission in 2017 to look into voter fraud and allegations of illegal ballots. After over a year of digging, the commission’s investigation turned up empty.
Yet, Trump has revived questions about election integrity with his backers alleging everything from deceased people voting to ballot-box stuffing.
Is it possible that in the wake of years of investigations into vote fraud that this is the election in which a massive conspiracy took place to deny Trump the election? Is it possible that this could happen only with votes that would help Biden and that no fraud could ever take place boosting Trump’s numbers? Is it possible that this could happen in states like Georgia, which is run by a Republican governor and whose elections are administered by a Republican secretary of state? Is it possible there was an effort to damage Trump’s chances but not the fates of embattled Senate Republicans, who wound up winning re-election despite poor pre-election polling? Or the fates of House Republicans, who are poised to gain seats this year after predictions of a net loss?
Trump and his backers vow to get to the bottom of this and demand the country pause while they make their case.
In the meantime, despite Trump’s resistance, the country will proceed as it did in 2016 when Trump was declared the victor in a close race: with a president-elect preparing for a smooth transition to a new administration on January 20, 2021.