UPDATE (Sept. 15, 2021, 10:30 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect that California Gov. Gavin Newsom defeated the recall effort.
On Tuesday, Californians voted on the Republican-led effort to “recall” Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, clearly rejecting the effort. But with polls showing for days that the recall would likely fail, Republicans have been laying the groundwork to claim that the election was stolen for weeks.
Republican candidate Larry Elder said last week that he believes "there might very well be shenanigans" in the election.
Republican candidate Larry Elder said last week that he believes "there might very well be shenanigans" in the election. Former President Donald Trump has also been banging a very familiar drum, telling right-wing cable channel Newsmax the election is “probably rigged” — a claim made without evidence. “They’re sending out all ballots ― the ballots are mail-out, mail-in ballots,” he said. “I guess you even have a case where you can make your own ballot. When that happens nobody’s going to win except these Democrats.” Fox News pundit Tomi Lahren meanwhile has assured Fox viewers that “the only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that these lies are finding a receptive audience in the Republican parts of California. That's no surprise given that conspiracy theories about the election are being circulated on right-wing social media.
On Monday, the day before the election, Elder told supporters concerned about fraud to go to his website to report “anything suspicious.” Trump chimed in (again), saying, “Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?”
In fact, the polling showed that the majority of California voters rejected the recall and wanted to keep Newsom in office. This is also no surprise, given that California voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 by a margin of 63.5 percent to 34.3 percent.
We’ve seen this routine before. Polls throughout the 2020 election season indicated that Trump would lose the election. He responded by claiming that if he lost, it would be because the election was rigged. On election night, he essentially declared himself the winner before all the ballots were counted. "We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election," he told a ballroom full of supporters. Throughout the days and weeks that followed, he continued to repeat — with eventually disastrous consequences — the lie that the election was stolen from him.
In May, one quarter of Americans said they believed that Trump was the true president. As of August, 66 percent of Republicans insisted that “the election was stolen from Trump,” to according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll. Twenty-eight percent of independent voters from the same poll believed Trump was the rightful winner. And according to a recent CNN poll, 59 percent of Republican respondents said believing Trump won the 2020 election was very or somewhat important to their political identity.
Trump thus taught the Republicans the game: When the polls are in your favor, boast that you have it in the bag.
Of course, during the 2016 election cycle, when polls showed Trump performing well, he regularly talked about how he was “winning.”
Trump thus taught the Republicans the game: When the polls are in your favor, boast that you have it in the bag. When the polls show that you are losing, begin spreading lies about election fraud so that you can declare yourself the winner no matter the result.
The danger of this cannot be overstated. Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University and Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow, told PBS back in 2018 that a way to undermine democracy is to spread propaganda which causes citizens to “lose confidence in democratic institutions and elected officials.” If enough people distrust the results of elections, democracy fails. Those who want democracy to fail are those who cannot win elections but refuse to recalibrate their message and policy to win widespread support.
If claiming election fraud is the new Republican response to losing — or even just thinking they could lose — we can expect a lot more iterations of the so-called “stop the steal” movement. Generally, a president who loses reelection stands aside and allows the party to move on. Trump, of course, is still trying to retain his grip on the Republican Party. Meanwhile, GOP leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Reps. Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Green are keeping the extremist wing of the party alive and well.
After the Jan. 6 insurrection, data showed that moderates were fleeing the Republican Party. Instead of reversing course, the Republican Party supercharged up the lies, turning them into a fundraising vehicle. This meant courting — and catering to — the more radicalized members of the Republican base.
This has created a cycle of radicalization: Republicans find they must play to their base by adopting unpopular policies — such as coming out against vaccines and masks in a pandemic and holding up Confederates and insurrectionists as heroes. As this happens, the moderates flee, driving the Republican Party farther to the right.
We can therefore expect to be doused with a firehose of falsehoods about the recall in California.
One solution is to put raincoats on the population. If we expect the lies and can prepare for them, we can better withstand them. But given current trends, it looks like we’ll need to stockpile our rain gear.