At the first presidential debate, Donald Trump said he would “absolutely” accept the outcome of the election.
“If she wins, I will absolutely support her,” Trump said.
But that's not Trump's message on the campaign trail, or the one he imparts to his army of online followers. He took his message that "the system" is plotting against him to an entirely new level Sunday afternoon, insisting for the first time that polling places are also "rigged."
He has now given ammunition for his followers to distrust the results on Election Day, despite the lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud or impersonation in the U.S. According to the Washington Post, out of more than billion ballots cast from 2000 to 2014, there were only 31 credible incidents.
Still, David Clarke Jr., who is a Trump supporter and the sheriff of Milwaukee, tweeted Saturday calling for an uprising.
Trump's attack of U.S. institutions is a tactic that Trump has deployed as his poll numbers drop and as more women step forward to detail unwanted sexual advances by him. He has turned himself into the victim — repeating at each of his rallies to tens of thousands of people that the "the system" is illegitimate and untrustworthy.
“The whole system is rigged and that’s why when the media does what they’re doing now, that’s rigging the system folks,” Trump said Friday at a rally in Charlotte, N.C. “It's rigging the system. The election is rigged. It's rigged like you've never seen before. They're rigging the system.”
It was a theme he parroted at rallies all week, and on Twitter.
Sunday morning he said sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live is against him.
And on Saturday he tweeted about a rigged election.
HIs running mate Gov. Mike Pence tempered Trump's insistence that a loss on Election Day is only because the system is stacked against him.
"We will absolutely accept the result of the election. Look, the American people will speak in an election that will culminate on November the 8th," Mike Pence said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
But Pence also used similar language as Trump, telling moderator Chuck Todd that the system is "rigged."
House Speaker Paul Ryan rejected any notion of a corrupt system, reaffirming through a spokeswoman that the electoral system is legit.
"Our democracy relies on confidence in election results, and the speaker is fully confident the states will carry out this election with integrity,” said AshLee Strong, Ryan’s press secretary.
But this is not a new subject for Trump as he's brought up the notion of a rigged system in the past also when his campaign is plagued with problems. But Trump's complaints of unfairness have never occurred with this intensity and now is a critical time when the election is just a bit more than three weeks away.
For instance, during the height of his feud with Gold Star family Khazir and Ghazala Khan, Trump said on Fox News, “I hope the Republicans are watching closely or it’s going to be taken away from us.”
And after he won Iowa and at times during the primaries when it was not certain that he would win the nomination, he defaulted to the rigged system argument.
For a candidate who has based his political career on conspiracy theories, throwing doubt into the electoral system could have the most repercussions.
Kim Lane Scheppele, an election law expert and professor at Princeton, said that presidential candidates are usually people who have a deep trust in the system and that any uncertainty usually comes from concerned voters — not the candidates.
“The problem is his supporters believe this, and if he loses the election and he’s already teed up this argument and it could have really massive, serious effects,” Kim said.
Trump has offered no evidence or specifics of a faulty, biased electoral system, but his repeated warnings of its illegitimacy undermines a system that is the bedrock of American democracy — one person, one vote and the peaceful transition of leaders.
President Barack Obama said that Trump's tirades are similar to "tyrannies" and "oppressive" countries.
Whether Trump believes what he says is beside the point. His passionate followers are likely to believe it. Trust in institutions are at an all time low.
Only 30 percent of Americans think the electoral system is "working as it should," according to a March survey by Gallup. That number is the lowest since Gallup began asking the question in January of 2000 and nearly 40 percent lower than the question's peak in January of 2008.
Two-thirds of Democrats have had a negative perception of the process this entire year as the issue of superdelegates plagued the nominating process — a process that Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders complained undercut the say the of the voters.
Republicans, according to the same Gallup survey, lost support in the process from January to March when trust in the system dropped from 46 to 30 percent. During that time, Trump began talking about a rigged process.
One of his informal advisers and long-time associates, Roger Stone, has filled in some of the details. He warned of fraudulent voting machines during an interview for conservative website, Brietbart, whose former head is now CEO of Trump’s campaign.
Days later, on August 16, Stone wrote in The Hill, “Can the election be rigged? You bet.”
Scheppele notes that each state has its own electoral system, which makes it difficult to influence a national election but also leads to voter skepticism.
“The American system has a very peculiar design that is not transparent to most Americans,” she said. “It would be really easy to make the case that the system is rigged even if the system is acting normally.”