Trump’s fraud accusations may hurt his endgame – just ask Mexico

Research shows voters penalise candidates who make accusations of fraud that aren’t credible, especially if they lose by a wide margin. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In Mexico, we’ve heard all about electoral fraud. And the view here is that Donald Trump’s recent accusations of “rigged elections” and his ambivalence about conceding defeat will do him more harm than good.

Pippa Norris has argued in the Washington Post that Trump’s allegations will probably depress voter turnout for him on November 8. I bet that’s true. But odds are also high that Trump is already looking beyond defeat, setting his sights on a project that will capitalise on the audience he has attracted over the past year.

One much discussed possibility is that he’ll launch a TV network in his name. If so, Trump may have a harder time building an audience than he expects.

My research on Mexico’s contested elections shows that people don’t like politicians who make accusations of electoral fraud.

To work, fraud accusations must be credible

Mexican democracy went through a decades-long process of consolidation that ended when electoral institutions became independent from the executive in 1996.

I cannot do justice to the history of democratisation and electoral scandals in Mexico here. But what you need to know is that the country’s experience with real election fraud emboldened one of its most prominent opposition candidates to repeatedly cast doubts on the legitimacy of two elections – in 2006 and in 2012 – even though the results were largely considered credible.

León Krauze’s has written a useful primer for understanding how and why such accusations have been made in past decades. To cut a long story short, in 2006, the leading candidate from the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD) lost the presidential election by a mere 0.56% of the vote.

Tens of thousands of his supporters took to the street to demand a recount. A partial recount was undertaken, but it failed to change the outcome.

Results of research I carried out three years later (in 2009), showed that Mexicans in general dislike candidates who make accusations of fraud. If the accuser is a member of their own political party, their opinions improve – but only if the electoral context makes the fraud accusation credible.

Mexico fulfilled a key condition for giving credibility to accusations of a rigged election: past election fraud. By 2006, the country was definitely a democracy, but memories of fixed elections remained, and they provided a baseline of credibility for the allegations.

Sadly for Donald Trump (but happily for US citizens), recent American history has no large-scale electoral scandal. So the fallout from his fraud accusations will probably be worse than what any Mexican candidate could expect.

For Trump, then, the “rigged elections” discourse could improve his standing among Republicans, or perhaps a small group of them, but only if the accusations seem reasonable. Beyond that, he will surely damage his brand.

In fact, his campaign seems to have damaged his brand already, and even his daughter’s seems to be in trouble too. The fraud accusations will likely only make things worse.

Much like the rest of Trump’s campaign, his refusal to acknowledge the legality and fairness of US electoral procedures has been a gamble that uses the power of negativity to attract attention like a lightning rod. But he’s wandering in the open during a storm of his own making, and these baseless allegations may well attract a lightning strike too close for comfort.

‘Nobody likes a sore loser’

The problem with negativity in campaigns is that, while it’s good for getting attention, almost nobody (beyond a minority of the candidate’s most ardent followers) appreciates them.

To understand the incentives that candidates face in making an accusation of fraud, I studied attitudes toward an unnamed candidate, who makes an accusation in a hypothetical election that he then goes on to lose.

I gave respondents only key pieces of information about his accusations (it was an experiment, so these features varied randomly between respondents). Among other things, my study tested whether the hypothetical candidate made accusations of fraud, and whether the results of the election were close.

The result: almost nobody likes a sore loser.

Don’t go negative

Fraud accusations work as negative campaigns aimed at the legitimacy of elections, and people generally dislike them. In my study, the hypothetical candidate who contests electoral results lost six points (on a 100-point scale) just for going negative. He lost another five for doing so in a scenario similar to Mexico’s 2006 scandal.

This may not be terribly interesting to the Trump team, mostly because they are probably focused on how his supporters, not the overall electorate, will react to his accusations on and after November 8.

But because independents and moderate Republicans might also be repelled by Trump’s discourse, it follows that not only will they probably not vote for him but also that they’re unlikely to follow him on his post-election adventures in entertainment.

Party identification colours almost everything we see and hear in politics, including fraud accusations. After such a contentious US election campaign, it is unsurprising that 67% of survey respondents who identify as Republican but only 15% of Democrats believe a Clinton victory will be the result of fraud.

In my experiment, PRD-identified respondents gave the hypothetical candidate who lost by a narrow margin a whopping 30-point rating boost after he went negative. But, critically, this only happened when respondents also learned that the electoral margin gave credibility to his accusations.

Don’t lose bigly

The point here is the narrow margin. If Clinton ends up winning the election with a wide margin, Trump’s accusations will be robbed of credibility, and the positive response from his supporters will be milder. This will have a negative effect on Trump’s reputation.

The narrow margin issue, of course, gives a powerful incentive for both candidates to drive up turnout: Trump wants to close the gap, and Clinton to widen it.

Trump’s voters may even penalise him because he “went negative”. The hypothetical candidate in my study did gain standing in the eyes of PRD-affiliated respondents, but they hit him with a 16-point loss for going negative in election that did not result in a narrow defeat.

Interestingly, they also penalised him for losing by a narrow margin when he didn’t make an accusation, perhaps because they expected him to win. So the result here is basically that, in the end, nobody likes a loser.

If Trump loses the US presidential election, his unsubstantiated claims of election fraud could hurt his post-campaign business ventures. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Adding together the three effects – partisans reward credible accusations; but they punish accusers that are not credible; and they also punish their candidates when they lose – I found that the accuser ends up with a result that’s statistically indistinguishable from zero. That is, for PRD supporters, the negatives they attributed to their hypothetical candidate were sufficient to cancel out any gains he might have achieved with a credible accusation.

This result is particularly worrisome for Trump if his post-election plan requires his core constituency to remain faithful (as consumers of whatever product he turns to next). He may well be punished for both going negative and losing.

Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has led many Republicans to say that any Clinton victory will be illegitimate, and some of them will likely still believe that for years to come. But for Trump’s brand, the accusations could cost him much more than he bargained for.