What if President Obama wins reelection and Republicans don't believe it?
The question isn't far-fetched. For several weeks, we have seen Republicans challenge the veracity of a number of election-related facts, and the outcome of the presidential election may not be different.
First, some Republicans claimed that public opinion polls were all skewed to show an Obama lead. As Slate reported, 71 percent of self-identified Republicans and 84 percent of tea partyers believe there is a skew. Republicans confidently claim that the polls are oversampling Democrats, not realizing that these are self-reported party identifications, which rise and fall with candidates' support.
Distrust of the polls is not a new phenomenon, and it is not confined to Republicans. As the New York Times' Nate Silver pointed out, when Democrats were behind in 2004, they believed the polls were skewed toward Republicans. Fortunately, Romney's debate performance last week was apparently enough to "unskew" the latest numbers.
Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a relatively rosy jobs report, which not only reported better-than-expected hiring for September, but also upward revisions for earlier months. Soon thereafter, a number of Republicans, including former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, questioned whether the numbers were accurate. Welch tweeted: "Unbelievable jobs numbers ... these Chicago guys will do anything ... can't debate so change number." What evidence did Welch have? Nada.
This week featured what conservative blogs are touting as an "explosive" new report suggesting that the Obama campaign is illegally accepting massive foreign contributions via credit card. The so-called proof comes from a number of foreign visits to the Obama campaign website, the lack of any federal requirement to publicly disclose contributions from individuals who give less than $200 total, and the Obama campaign's supposed failure to use credit card verification tools to make sure the contributions are coming from inside the United States.
Never mind that the Obama campaign has denied similar reports in the past and has confirmed that it does use the verification tools; that an extensive Federal Election Commission audit of the 2008 Obama campaign found no evidence of illegal foreign contributions; that foreign visits to the website do not mean foreign contributions are being made; and that U.S. citizens (including those in the military) living abroad have the right to contribute to federal campaigns. The claims are a way to delegitimize the Obama campaign, even as Republican leaders in Congress stymie efforts to fix our broken disclosure laws and argue for less disclosure of campaign-finance information.
All of these conspiracy theories - like the earlier controversies over Obama's birthplace - indicate that if we are unlucky enough to have a very close election in November in which the president ekes out a victory, we can expect Republicans to question the election results, too.
We'll have the fraudulent fraud squad telling us that Democrats stole the election. Hucksters like John Fund will point to "bizarre" anomalies in vote totals from Democratic areas and tout new conspiracy theories. Social media will likely fan the flames.
Unfortunately, as I argue in The Voting Wars, we run our elections so badly that there will be plenty of things for Republicans to complain about: partisan election officials, broken voting machines, unclear rules, controversial court decisions, and inconsistencies among voter registration totals, exit polls, and the final tally. The cause of many election problems almost certainly will be incompetence, not malfeasance, but that's a hard argument to sell to people on the wrong end of a close election.
Since 2000, public opinion on the fairness of elections has been volatile. In 1996, before the 2000 Florida meltdown ending with the Supreme Court's decision in Bush vs. Gore, about 10 percent of people believed the way the election was run was somewhat or very unfair, with almost no difference between Republican and Democratic views. By 2004, when George W. Bush won reelection over John Kerry, roughly 22 percent of Democrats thought the way the election was run was unfair, compared with about 3 percent of Republicans. Yet after the contested Washington state election in 2004, when the courts handed the governorship to a Democrat after a Republican was initially declared the winner, 68 percent of Republicans thought it was not run fairly, compared with only 27 percent of Democrats.
The lesson from these statistics is simple: If my guy won, the election was fair and square; if your guy won, there must have been some kind of chicanery.
But at this point, I'm more concerned that Republicans won't buy the final outcome. If Obama wins a second term, polarization and partisanship will only get worse if Republicans do not believe the president won legitimately. It would be reminiscent of Democrats' pre-9/11 views of the legitimacy of Bush's presidency.
If you think politics are ugly now and that the truth has been a casualty of the campaign, just wait for November. If it is another squeaker, the election "truthers" will be front and center.