Why is it so hard to believe that Biden won?

Debunking the rigged election conspiracy theory

It’s been nearly a week since major news outlets called the election for Joe Biden, yet those in the Trump camp still refuse to concede the election. They cite voting “irregularities” without evidence and some have gone so far to say that they are preparing for a second Trump term. Thus far, courts have not been convinced of any fraud that could have affected the outcome of the election and election officers in swing states aren’t aware of substantiated claims of fraud.

Despite all this, conspiracy theories abound: Democrats somehow stole the presidential election. Fact-finding and critical thinking are the bane of most conspiracies and this one is no different. I’ll walk through what our expectations should have been before the election, what the results have shown, and how we can be confident that the results can be believed.

In the months before the election, forecasters gave Trump a small probability of winning based on polling data combined with robust statistical models. These projections showed that Biden was expected to outperform Clinton’s 2016 result and that even if there was polling error, Biden would be expected to win regardless because of his significant lead over Trump.

These expectations are in-line with Trump’s approval ratings throughout his first term. As shown in the chart above, Trump had the lowest average approval of any first-term president in the modern era. There are other data points to consider that support the polling data: a historically bad economy in the first half of 2020 and over 200,000 deaths caused by a poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One must also consider Trump’s performance in the 2016 election. Clinton received nearly three million more votes than Trump but lost in the electoral college in the three key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by a total of just under 78,000 votes. This margin of victory is merely six hundredths of one percent of the total votes cast — Trump barely eked out a victory. Given that Biden’s polling far exceeded Clinton’s, why would anyone think that Trump could pull off a similar miracle in 2020?

Trump did have a few things going in his favor. The economy was in good shape before the pandemic and incumbent presidents rarely lose re-election, George H. W. Bush being the latest. Further, while Trump’s approval ratings are historically low, they had little variance and they never got near the lowest levels experienced by Carter or either Bush. Trump’s approval remained steady even after mishandling the COVID pandemic, which means his base of support is robust.

The highest voter turnout in a century propelled Joe Biden to a margin of victory of five million votes (and counting). As analysts expected, Biden outperformed Clinton’s 2016 margins by two million votes and he did so across 60% of the counties in the U.S. as shown in the map at the top of the article.

It’s this broad gain across the map that deserves additional focus. While Trump didn’t flip red-states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, or Indiana, he outperformed Clinton consistently, in a regional pattern that spilled over to the neighboring swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The chart below shows data for nine swing states and shows that, with the exception of Florida, Biden generally outperformed Clinton, even in counties that aren’t close to voting Democratic.

Most counties show consistent vote shares between the 2016 and 2020 elections, suggesting that the outcome could not have been wildly affected by any sort of malfeasance.

Given that Trump barely beat Clinton and Biden outperformed Clinton across most of the map, one should not be surprised that Trump lost key swing states.

Yes, and there are many reasons to support this most basic assertion. The United States has been conducting elections for over two-hundred years. Rules have been developed and refined over time to ensure fairness and transparency in our system of two-party competition.

Elections are governed by state law and are administered on the local level (usually by county), which means that many people are involved with distributing and counting ballots. The sheer number of interested parties makes it extremely difficult to get away with any sort of conspiracy or malfeasance. It would only take one person to spill the beans and the whole conspiracy would be found out.

Any fraud at a scale that could affect an election (say thousands of votes) would be easy to spot as well. Say for instance someone tried to alter an election by stealing Republican absentee ballots from mailboxes or by changing registration addresses. Such a scheme would be sidelined quickly because those Republicans would complain about their missing ballots and their old ballots would be spoiled. If they were delivered to a new address, whoever is at that address would get caught quickly.

There are also systems to guarantee that ballots are delivered. Say there was a scheme whereby someone posed as a mail carrier and collected ballots from Republican households simply to throw them away. Online systems show when ballots are delivered and voters can look up whether their ballot has been delivered and counted. If not, they can go about requesting provisional ballots and everything will be sorted out after the election. Similarly, campaigns can track the same ballot return data. If a series of households that routinely vote simply didn’t have their votes counted, there is reason to believe something went wrong and an investigation would be triggered.

The counting process can be trusted because observers from campaigns and the general public are allowed to watch the vote counting process. Also, records are retained in order to allow for auditing and re-counts if needed. And since vote tallies are recorded by competing campaigns, any efforts to change vote counts after the fact would be quickly spotted and corrected.

All of these safeguards make it so that election fraud is incredibly rare. The conservative Heritage Foundation maintains a database of proven cases of fraud. Since 1982, there have been under 1,300 proven cases of fraud in the U.S. across billions of ballots cast in local, state, and presidential elections. From 2009–2018 there was an average of 67 fraud cases a year, four times less than the annual rate that people were struck by lightning over the same period. It’s unsurprising then that the Trump campaign hasn’t been able to prove any fraud claims in court.

Four years ago, before the 2016 election, Trump said he would accept the results of the election only if he won. Now we are seeing him keep to his promise. In Trump’s mind, only Republican votes are legal and those cast for other parties are illegal. How is such an assertion any different from those dictators around the globe that rule via rigged elections?

The truth of the matter is that a man who has used his inherited wealth and connections to dodge Vietnam, survive several bankruptcies, and miraculously win a presidential election isn’t accustomed to losing. He also benefits from these allegations of fraud by building a “lost cause” narrative. He can anger and motivate his supporters by saying they were robbed of their victory. His campaign has used this narrative to raise money for legal efforts to fight the election results, but this money can be used in any number of ways. One way it can be used is for legal costs after he leaves office, especially if he starts a 2024 campaign. It can also used to influence other politicians via donations. There are also theories that Trump might want to start his own news network that competes with Fox. If he keeps his loyal base motivated and plays his cards right, he could take significant viewership from Fox, especially if he claims that Fox was in on the “media fix.”

All in all, the rigged election conspiracy theory is not based on fact, but is instead a means to cradle a fragile ego and to exploit loyal supporters.

Consultant, developer, statistical analyst. Published reports with CMS and the FDA along with a manuscript in the journal Vaccine.

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