Alan Knight can list the reasons he won’t trust the results of the Nov. 3 election if President Trump loses.
First, almost everyone he knows is supporting the president. “Just from everything I see around me, it’s going to be a landslide,” the 68-year-old Republican from Sahuarita, Ariz., said. Mr. Knight also believes Democrats will do whatever they can to win — even if it means they have to “pull votes out of ditches” and “cheat in every possible way,” he said.
So, as he sees it, Mr. Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer to power to Democrats at this point makes sense, even if it was dismissed by other Republican leaders and condemned as dangerous by Democrats.
“He’s going to wait and see whether it was an honest election before handing over power,” Mr. Knight said.
Trump supporters saying they have Mr. Trump’s back is not a surprise at this point in the Trump era. But recent interviews with Republican voters in several battleground states show just how much Mr. Trump’s unrelenting campaign to shake trust in voting has compounded the deep misgivings his supporters have about the integrity of the process. While some were troubled by the idea that Mr. Trump might refuse to leave if he was decisively defeated, many simply do not believe that he could, or will, lose fair and square.
Polls now show Mr. Trump behind in most battleground states and nationally. If he does come up short in November, these voters say he would be justified in questioning whether Democrats manipulated the outcome and whether the results and state-by-state race calls of news organizations were wrong.
Sylvia Rhodes Blakey, 73, of Green Valley, Ariz., was categorical: The only way Mr. Trump will lose is if the Democrats rig the election in favor of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, she said.
“There’s going to be massive attempts at fraud,” Ms. Blakey said. “There are so many illegals that have the names of dead people, and they’re voting on those ballots.”
Even though there is no evidence of widespread fraud, the allegation came up repeatedly among Republicans as a reason for Mr. Trump not to commit to handing over power.
Jim Thienel, 73, of Waterford, Mich., said that in his view, fraud was inevitable and Mr. Trump was simply refusing to accept any election tainted by it.
“I think what Trump is really saying is that if the election is filled with fraud, which I believe it’s going to be, do you walk out on your role as the president of the United States simply because the Democrats cheated?” said Mr. Thienel, who runs an appliance repair shop.
It is impossible to tell whether Mr. Trump would follow through on his threats not to leave willingly, or whether this is another example of the bluster and hyperbole he has always employed to generate controversy and enrage many on the left.
But his refusal to make a plain-spoken commitment to a transfer of power, as other Ameican leaders have done, stands out in the series of unprecedented developments rippling through this election season. Already, tens of millions of people will be casting ballots by mail for the first time, putting pressure on that method of voting and processing. The vote count is likely to continue in some key states after Nov. 3. And there are the persistent, unfounded claims of a president who insists that mail-in ballots will be manipulated by his political opponents.
Election experts and campaign strategists warn that these unique circumstances have made Republicans more skeptical than ever about the legitimacy of the electoral process, which could lead to considerable political instability.
“The main effect President Trump has had is to make Republicans very skeptical about mail voting,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who has been critical of the president. According to a poll conducted this month by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about twice as many Democrats plan to cast their ballot by mail than Republicans, 52 percent compared with 28 percent.
If those mail votes take time to count, and eventually swing the election to Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump and the G.O.P.’s small army of lawyers could try to claim fraud.
Election 2020 ›
Understand Mail-In Voting
- How to Vote: Because of the pandemic, many voting rules have changed this year, making it harder than usual to figure out how to cast your ballot. Here is some help to make sure your vote is counted.
- Rise in Mail Voting: About three-quarters of all American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the 2020 election — the most in U.S. history. Roughly 80 million mail ballots may flood election offices, more than double what was returned in 2016.
- Surge in Paper Mail: The long-troubled Postal Service may be overwhelmed by the task of delivering tens of millions more votes cast by mail.
- How to Count Ballots? There may be various battles over how to count ballots. Should mailed ballots be counted if they are received by Election Day or simply postmarked by Election Day? Does a ballot count if the post office does not postmark it at all?
- Do You Still Have Time?: Voters in 35 states can request ballots so close to Election Day that it may not be feasible for their ballots to be mailed to them and sent back to election officials in time to be counted. Here’s a list of state’s where it’s risky to procrastinate.
- A Long Road to Election Day: It is estimated that party organizations, campaigns and interest groups across the county have already filed 160 lawsuits trying to shape the rules of the election.
Mr. Trump has already declared that the results of the election “may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED,” as he argued in a tweet. And on Monday he continued to claim, without offering any evidence, that ballot counting was going awry. “Many things are already going very wrong!” he wrote on Twitter.
In interviews, many Trump supporters — who tended to be suspicious about election tampering and supportive of Republican efforts to pass laws limiting access to voting early — didn’t want Mr. Trump to promise to give up power in the face of a potentially drawn-out and messy vote count.
Charles Thompson, a 73-year-old certified public accountant who lives in Green Valley, said he had been through enough elections to have a pretty good idea of what to expect. “For most of my life, by the time I went to bed, I knew who was going to be president,” he said.
Mr. Thompson has accepted the fact that it may not be possible to determine a winner before he turns in for the night on Nov. 3. But he is not sure how long is an acceptable amount of time to have to wait for final results. “I don’t know how you put a time on it, but it has to be quick,” he said.
Sherry Livering, 58, a homemaker from Lebanon, Pa., who plans to vote for Mr. Trump, said she found the idea of waiting several days or even weeks to identify a winner unacceptable. “We have an Election Day,” she said. “I don’t want to wait two weeks, that’s ridiculous.”
Mr. Thienel said that his years as a poll watcher in Detroit convinced him that voter fraud would be widespread this year. “I think it’s far more likely that Democrats will cheat with the absentee and mail-in ballots. I strongly believe that there is nothing the Democrats wouldn’t do to win,” he said.
Like many of Mr. Trump’s supporters, Mr. Thienel was more concerned with the prospect of violence instigated by opponents of the president if he wins.
“I just spent three and a half hours in gun training today because I’m concerned,” he said.
Rick Slowicki, 52, who owns a courier service in Philadelphia, said Mr. Trump’s comments about remaining in office weren’t nearly as troubling to him as the angry opposition he envisioned if the president wins a second term.
“I think the country is more volatile if he wins legitimately. That’s my bigger concern,” he said. “Republicans aren’t the ones known to be strong protesters. Before he even stepped into the presidency, the protests and the rioting had begun. And it’s just continued.”
And like many Trump supporters, Mr. Slowicki doesn’t take Mr. Trump literally word for word.
“He says things to trigger people. But if he clearly loses, I don’t support him refusing to leave if he does follow through on those words,” he said.
The pessimism among Trump supporters about election integrity and their willingness to defend the president’s defiance reflect the intense fear about voter fraud among conservatives, even though documented examples are rare. The idea that Democrats are perpetrating schemes to impersonate voters, forge signatures and stuff ballot boxes is a recurring story line in right-leaning media, of which Mr. Trump is an insatiable consumer. Lately those stories have shifted focus to sow doubts about voting by mail, despite the fact that the most recent high-profile example of absentee ballot fraud involved a Republican operative in North Carolina.
News coverage on the right has highlighted examples of what conservatives say is proof that the system isn’t working, no matter how seemingly small or isolated. Ms. Blakey, for example, pointed to a story that Mr. Trump had cited out of Pennsylvania about nine mail-in ballots that elections officials found in the trash. The ballots were ultimately counted, though Republicans have seized on it as an example of a deliberate attempt at fraud. Still, Ms. Blakey said she planned to vote in Arizona by mail.
Stephen Pavela, 71, a retired physician from Shelby, Wis., said that he worried that absentee ballots collected in bulk at assisted living facilities were ripe for fraud.
“I was an internist and I took care of old people — they’re highly susceptible to influence,” said Mr. Pavela as he waited for his wife outside a Kohl’s department store on Saturday evening. “Ballot harvesting and things like that, we know that does happen.”
Some Trump supporters also said while they did not entirely agree with the president’s recent comments, they understood why he would not declare his intentions to leave office given how many unknown variables are involved with holding a presidential election in the middle of a pandemic.
Lance Dechant, 55, of Holmen, Wis., a village in the western part of the state, said the question of whether Mr. Trump should leave office willingly wasn’t necessarily so straightforward. “Yes and no. Yes, if the outcome of the election’s clear. If it’s in doubt, I can understand his point,” said Mr. Dechant, an employee of the federal government who described himself as an independent and said he would be voting for Mr. Trump.
“I mean, it could be weeks before you actually know what the vote total was,” he added. “If you’ve got five or six states where, after the election it’s still up in the air, why would he leave office?”
Mark Warner, 55, an automotive engineer from Lake Orion, Mich., said he had many concerns about voting by mail. “I’ve gotten at least five applications for absentee ballots mailed to me. It’s insanity. If there’s an opportunity for people who want to commit fraud, they’re going to do it,” he said.
Still, he doesn’t put much stock in the president’s reluctance to commit to a peaceful transition of power. “At the end of the day, if he loses the election, the moving vehicles will be there on Jan. 20,” he said, “and he’ll be gone.”
Jeremy W. Peters reported from New York and Hank Stephenson from Amado, Ariz. Kathleen Gray contributed reporting from West Bloomfield, Mich.; Jon Hurdle from Philadelphia; Tom Kertscher from Wauwatosa, Wis.; and Kay Nolan from La Crosse, Wis.