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More troubling than Trump on issue of accepting election results: Americans’ feelings on the subject

In an NBC poll, 82 percent of Democrats said they would “definitely” or “probably” accept a win of their opponent, but just 53 percent of Republicans gave one of those two answers.

Supporters attending a Donald Trump rally in Green Bay on Oct. 17.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Notwithstanding his poor joke that he will honor the election results, as long as he wins, I don’t really believe that Donald Trump will refuse to acknowledge the results if they are clear. If they are truly not clear, I do not doubt that he will challenge them, hopefully by peaceful, legal means, until the winner is determined. This has happened several times in history, most recently in the Bush-Gore case. And, as I said in a previous post, the system does not really require a clear concession statement from the loser on election night.

More troubling, perhaps, is the result of an NBC poll that asked respondents whether they would accept the results of the election if the candidate they support loses. Only 40 percent of those surveyed said they would “definitely” accept such a result and another 28 percent said they “probably” would. We can’t know much about what the 28 percent had in mind when they said “probably.”

That still leaves 32 percent who said something else, of whom 18 percent said it was “unlikely” they would accept such a result and 13 percent said they would “definitely not” accept it. Breaking that down by party, 82 percent of Democrats said they would “definitely” or “probably” accept such a result, but just 53 percent of Republicans gave one of those two answers.

I say this is troubling, but I wouldn’t take it too seriously unless I get clarification of what meaning the respondents attach to the word “accept” such a result. It seems to cover a range of possible reactions from disappointment to rebellion. I don’t predict a rebellion. I do note that it is one more measure of the extreme polarization of the country across partisan and ideological lines that, at a deeper level, threatens the healthy functioning of our system.

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I said in my previous post that our system does not really depend on a gracious election night concession by the losing candidate. I note that at the same Ohio rally at which made his poor joke, he also made the much more rational statement that: “I would accept a clear election result, but I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result.” 

In fact, the tradition of an election night concession does not go that far back in history, and plenty of U.S. elections have been under a cloud for days, weeks or even months. The really big historical case, the 1876 election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden, is not getting the attention it deserves just now. That is a case in which, almost certainly, the result was actually stolen by the Republicans for Hayes, although it ended in a “grand bargain” that pacified Democrats, although even if that bargain had negative results for the future of the post-Civil War reconstruction in the South.

If you want to learn that story, and get a fabulous, calm, scholarly-but-not-boring overview of contested presidential elections, I urge you to read this piece by professor Edward B. (Ned) Foley, a leading expert on election law and the author of a recent book on the history of the disputed election. I remember Foley well as one of the scholars who helped Minnesota get peacefully and successfully through (or at least helped those of us writing about it to get through) the incredibly close election and recount in the Norm Coleman-Al Franken Senate contest of 2008.

In case you deprive yourself of the knowledge and wisdom in Foley’s piece, here’s what I would call the summary/conclusion section:

There’s no question that Trump’s self-centered phrasing— ‘I’ll keep you in suspense’ —is thoroughly inappropriate in a democracy, where the voters are sovereign and candidates are supposed to serve the electorate’s interest. And his allegations that the electoral system is pervasively rigged are both entirely divorced from reality and egregiously irresponsible. But would a Trump holdout on election night necessarily be the historical aberration critics are describing? Not exactly.

Despite what some of the reaction to Trump’s comments suggests, it is not a requirement that the loser in a presidential election invariably concede on Election Night. In fact, multiple times since the Civil War, it hasn’t happened. The most obvious recent example, of course, was 2000, when the pivotal Florida vote was genuinely in doubt for weeks between George W. Bush and Al Gore. But earlier elections dragged out for weeks as well, when the outcome of the election was either not immediately known or was a close enough call to merit further scrutiny. When you look at these episodes together, what they actually suggest is that the country can handle this kind of suspense. It might be a colossal act of vanity for Trump to skip the now routinely accepted concession speech on Election Night, but that wouldn’t itself be reason enough to believe that our democracy is in crisis.