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Political Parties & Elections

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Research Puzzle #1

What really matters in the 2016 campaign and election?

Often it is difficult to focus on what matters—particularly when examining something as complex as campaigns and elections. Add in the noise of people’s opinions (some informed, some not) and media spectacles (some absurdly biased, some decent journalism) and it is easy to get lost in the mess, to get fixated on things that don’t matter so much, or to get frustrated and turned off. But there are things in this campaign and election that really do matter, so it’s our job to identify them and think through why they matter. In this essay, I argue that one thing that really matters in the 2016 campaign are threats to the legitimacy of the American electoral system.

While I decided to focus on legitimacy, there are endless other possibilities. Some “matter” because of their potential influence: campaign strategies, the primary elections, fractured political parties, the role of campaign financing, polls, which voter demographics are being targeted, voter mobilization and outreach, differences between presidential and congressional campaigns, and so on. Others “matter” because of potential results: the consequences of which candidates or parties win or lose, whether the White House and Senate are taken over by the same party, the future of the Republican Party, what public policies will be pursued and which will be ignored, the future of the Supreme Court, polarization, a continued decrease in political engagement, and many more. Decisions, decisions! The puzzle is so broad that any significant aspect of campaigns and elections can be selected, which is a nice freedom to have. But it can also be intimidating because you need to make these decisions and chart your own research path. The key is to be aware of what choices you making and why—and to be able to explain these choices. This keeps you from getting lost in your work and leads to a higher-quality result.

My decision to explore the possible repercussions of this election on the legitimacy American electoral system was inspired by one relatively-small part of Donald Trump’s campaign that caught my attention—his mention of a “rigged election” (mentioned at the end of the Liasson article). This campaign rhetoric matters because it raises questions about what will happen when the election is over. I make this argument in three steps: First, Trump’s comment is briefly discussed in order to clarify the starting point of my research. Next, I outline an important presumption upon which my analysis is based and offer evidence to support it. Finally, I make a case for why the legitimacy of the electoral system may be threatened by this rhetoric.


On Tuesday, August 2, Donald Trump told the Washington Post: “If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised” (quoted in Weigel 2016). He repeated variations of this comment a number of times over the following weeks. On August 12 in Altoona, Pennsylvania, he got more specific, stating: “The only way we can lose, in my opinion—I really mean this, Pennsylvania—is if cheating goes on.” He went on to explain that is would happen through voter fraud in cities like Philadelphia, where people will be “voting 15 times for Hillary” (quoted in Haberman and Flegenheimer 2016). The implication is that the Democratic Party is planning to steal the election through voter fraud, particularly in urban areas with large populations of poorer, minority voters.

This focus on voting in urban areas has some important context. The central intent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was to protect the rights of minorities—and in particular, African American voters in the South. It did so by forcing states to get rid of Jim Crow era restrictions, such as the poll tax and the “literacy” test, and declaring that states with a history of denying the vote had to receive pre-approval from the U.S. Justice Departments for any future changes to their electoral systems. In the 2013 case Shelby County vs. Holder, the Supreme Court dismantled this pre-approval provision, which left states to change their electoral laws in ways that have been shown to adversely effect on minority voting rights, such as Voter ID laws and the limitation of early voting. However, in recent months, federal court cases have rolled back these restrictions in a number of states.

These actions have opened up the door to Trump’s argument, which is based on the idea that such rollbacks will lead to widespread voter fraud. Evidence, suggests that this concern is unfounded. A recent study, for example, found the investigation (not prosecution) of 31 cases of voter fraud among one billion ballots cast since 2000 (Levitt). Ari Berman argues that rigging an election is basically impossible and concludes: “In the end, it’s much easier to lose your rightful vote than to gain an extra one” (2016). However, to counter this concern, Trump has encouraged his supporters serve as “poll watchers” on Election Day. Some worry that this could lead to violence. Perhaps. But what it most certainly will lead to is a large portion of Americans questioning and even challenging the legitimacy of the electoral system.

This argument is based on one very large presumption: Trump will lose. There is a significant amount of evidence that supports this presumption. First is the behavior Trump himself. While we cannot know whether Trump really believes the election will be rigged election, it doesn’t matter—simply raising this claim is an indicator that he thinks he is going to lose. Historically, candidates regularly say “When I’m president…” all the way through Election Day, fighting off any possibility that the idea of failure will be planted in the minds of supporters (and potential supporters). After all, the theory of political efficacy suggests that if supporters think that a candidate will lose, they have far less incentive to vote for that candidate or vote at all. Considering that Trump’s comments came during a particularly difficult month for the campaign as his polling support dropped, it seems that like the rigged election scenario was a way to shift the blame for expected defeat.


Certainly there is an important distinction between “losing” in August—that is, being behind in the polls, which may be untrustworthy—and actually losing in November. But beyond being consistently behind in the “horserace,” there are other indicators that strongly suggest that Trump will lose. One is the fact that Hillary Clinton is campaigning in Georgia, a state that has not cast its electoral votes for a Democratic presidential candidate in decades. Part of this is because the demographics are changing as Atlanta continues to grow, but the main reason is that Trump has not locked up traditionally Republican states. That must be a sign of significant weakness or else the Clinton campaign would not be spending finite dollars and time in Georgia…and Texas…and Utah…and Arizona. To explore this further we could dig deeper into the electoral implications of changing demographics, Trump’s voter ceiling, Clinton and the Democrats dominance in both the money race and in campaign organization, or other factors. But the most important factor is the way the Electoral College works. As a result of the way in which electoral votes are allotted, there are only so many paths to victory. Forget Trump—any Republican presidential candidate would have a very difficult time winning in the Electoral College right now.

This is not partisan opinion; it’s a political science analysis. But it is not unbiased. Everyone has biases because we all have unique sets of values and beliefs that influence how we see the world. However, having biases is not the same as being a partisan or an ideologue, which means that you have no interest in considering alternative views or recognizing contradictory evidence. Many Americans on both the right and the left of the spectrum are motivated by ideology, but the issue of legitimacy is one that is today most threatened by the ideology of Trumpism. Trumpism has been defined in many ways, but certainly one central component of it is an uber-confidence that leaves no room for doubt. Hence, the notion that electoral defeat can only come from a stolen election. By suggesting this, Trump leaves only two possible outcomes of the election: he wins the presidency or we cannot trust the legitimacy of elections in the United States.

But what is legitimacy and why does it matter? It is the idea that we “buy into” something because we see it as fair, just, and right. We trust in it, the same way that we trust that the dollars in our pocket are more than just worthless paper. In the American electoral system, built upon the theory of popular sovereignty, legitimacy and democracy are inexorably linked—you can’t have one without the other. The United States does not have direct democracy, in which the people directly vote on policy issues (except in the case of state ballot initiatives or propositions), but we trust that the election of representatives is an expression of the people’s voice (however worrying that might be sometimes). According to Daniel Shea (2012), the legitimacy of the electoral system comes from a trust in the “two-way street” of representative democracy: through the consent of our votes, we empower our representatives; in turn, our representatives are responsive to us because we can hold them accountable when the next election comes around if they aren’t.

Matthew Streb argues that elections must also be “free, fair, and frequent” if they are to be considered legitimate. To meet this standard, he introduces four basic criteria: (1) every person’s vote must be counted equality, (2) there must be real competition between candidates, (3) the voting process and determination of results must be transparent, and (4) there should be no rules that make it burdensome to vote. Trump’s claims about a rigged election may have the impact of directly challenging the legitimacy of the electoral system by casting doubt on the fairness of the 2016 election and its results. Brendan Nylan explains that “democracies depend on losers’ acceptance of the legitimacy of the political process. That’s why the norm of accepting election outcomes among defeated presidential candidates is so important (2016). If Trump supporters question the legitimacy of the election without substantial evidence, it will strike at the heart of a democracy and could threaten the American republic’s long history of peaceful transitions of power (Montanaro 2016).

According to Shea (2012), elections can serve as a “safety valve” to let off pressure when levels of frustration are building, as they are currently. Clearly, Trump has attracted a portion of the electorate that is angry, frustrated, and disenchanted, and has good reasons for feeling that way. The economy has not improved equally for everyone, the federal government is largely dysfunctional, polarization between the parties and among the public is at historically high levels, and there is new recognition that the Republican Party is just as “establishment” as the Democrats. Basically, a portion of the electorate feels they are being screwed from every direction.

Trump has created an outlet for this frustration. Some of it could be productive, but whatever positive possibilities it might offer are overwhelmed by his propensity to assign blame through conspiratorial thinking. Take rhetoric that channels conspiratorial thinking, add anger and frustration, sprinkle in occasions of violence at past Trump rallies, and you have a dangerous recipe. This concern is not only about safety, but more broadly about the future viability of the American electoral system. If a portion of people believe that the money in our pockets is only worthless paper, won’t that make it worthless paper? That is why legitimacy matters in 2016. Just a few early August comments in the campaign could have significant repercussions come election night.


Mandatory Readings:

Adamy, Janet. “Changing U.S. Demographics Favor Democrats in Election, Report Says,” Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2016.

“American Voters Dissatisfied, Angry, Distrustful, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; Wide Support For College Tuition Assistance,” Quinnipiac Poll, August 31, 2015.

Berman, Ari. “Donald Trump is wrong. Rigging an election is almost impossible,” Washington Post, August 5, 2016.

Liasson, Mara, “Republicans Consider Lasting Impression of Trump on Their Party,” NPR, August 30, 2016.

Nyhan., Brendan. “How Donald Trump’s ‘Rigged’ Claim Chips Away at Democracy,” August 5, 2016.

[The following two sources are posted in the “Course Readings” section of Blackboard]

Shea, Daniel M. “The Theoretical Underpinnings of Elections,” in Let’s Vote: The Essentials of the American Electoral Process. New York: Pearson (2012).

Streb, Mathew J. “Creating a Model Electoral Democracy,” in Rethinking American Electoral Democracy. New York: Routledge (2011), pp. 1-5.

Totenberg, Nina. “Stricter Voter ID And Other Voting Laws Rolled Back In Slew Of Court Decisions,” NPR, August 5, 2016.


Recommended, Useful Readings:

Associated Press. “Study: Voter ID laws hit minorities,” Politico, October 9, 2014.

Atkins, David. “Does Trump Have a Ceiling at 42%?” Washington Monthly, July 17, 2016.

Berman, Ari. “Block The Vote: A Journalist Discusses Voting Rights And Restrictions,” NPR, August 10, 2016.

“California 2016 ballot propositions,” Ballotpedia, accessed September 8, 2016.

Chalabi, Mona. “Don’t trust the polls: the systemic issues that make voter surveys unreliable,” Guardian, January 27, 2016.

Cillizza, Chris. “The GOP’s electoral-map problem is not about Trump. It’s about demographics,” Washington Post, May 8, 2016.

Confessore, Nicholas, and Rachel Shorey. “Donald Trump, With Bare-Bones Campaign, Relies on G.O.P. for Vital Tasks,” New York Times, August 21, 2016.

Crespino, Joseph. “Why Hillary Clinton Might Win Georgia,” New York Times, August 22, 2016.

“Donald Trump Cues Up Another Conspiracy (editorial),” New York Times, August 22, 2016.

Haberman, Maggie, and Matt Flegenheimer. “Donald Trump, a ‘Rigged’ Election and the Politics of Race,” New York Times, August 21, 2016.

Levitt, Justin. “A comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation finds 31 credible incidents out of one billion ballots cast,” Washington Post, August 6, 2016.

Loyola, Mario. “Behind America’s Crisis of Confidence: Government of, by, and for Special Interests,” National Review, January 21, 2016.

Montenaro, Domenico. “Trump’s Voter Fraud Warnings Likely To Have Major Implications,” NPR, August 15, 2016.

Rothenberg, Stuart. “Trump shouldn’t bet on radically changing the electoral map,” Washington Post, June 21, 2016.

Shapiro, Ben. “Conservatism’s Sad and Ugly Transformation into Trumpism,” National Review, August 3, 2016.

Weigel, David. “For Trump, a new ‘rigged’ system: The election itself,” Washington Post, August 2, 2016.

“2016 Presidential Race: Campaign Financing,” Center for Responsive Politics, accessed September 8, 2016.

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