There's a simple reason Donald Trump keeps claiming that rampant voter fraud ensures a rigged election whose outcome will be illegitimate, if he loses: Republican voters, and Trump supporters, are inclined to believe him.
The Public Religion Research Institute released a remarkable new poll today that confirms the point.
It finds that a huge majority of Republican respondents say voter fraud is a bigger problem than restricted access to voting is. And there is a striking racial divide on this question as well.
The poll finds that among Americans overall, only 43 per cent have a great deal of confidence that their votes will be counted accurately. That's unfortunate, to be sure.
The partisan divide is notable: 55 per cent of Democrats have a great deal of confidence in the vote counting, while 44 per cent of Republicans and 41 per cent of Trump supporters feel the same way.
Here's where it gets worse. Only 37 per cent of Americans believe that "people casting votes who are not eligible to vote" is a bigger problem than "eligible voters being denied the right to vote," which is seen as a bigger problem by 41 per cent. But a huge majority of Republicans sees the former as the bigger problem:
"Roughly two-thirds (66 per cent) of Republicans believe voter fraud is a bigger problem than voter disenfranchisement, compared to only 19 per cent of Democrats. More than six in ten (62 per cent) Democrats say eligible voters being denied access is the bigger problem facing the election system."
African Americans say that denial of access to eligible voting is the bigger problem by 66-21 per cent, while whites say that voter fraud is the bigger problem by 42-35 per cent. But voter suppression is a far more extensive problem than is voter fraud, which is virtually nonexistent:
"The real danger to American democracy stems from GOP efforts to make it harder to vote. New voting restrictions - like voter-ID laws, cuts to early voting and barriers to voter registration - that are in place in 14 states for the first time in 2016 will make it harder for millions of eligible voters to cast a ballot.
"And voters are lacking crucial protections because this is the first presidential election in 50 years without the full provisions of the Voting Rights Act....It's incredibly unlikely there will be widespread voter fraud on Election Day. But there will be eligible voters who show up to vote and are turned away from the polls. That's the real threat to election integrity we should be focusing on."
Yet the public is closely divided on this question, and Republican voters overwhelmingly think voter fraud is the bigger problem.
This may be the result of the fact that the "voter fraud" canard is hardly a Trumpian innovation. Republican leaders have been hyping allegations of voter fraud for many years amid efforts to restrict voting. But now that Trump has taken that hype to truly insane lengths - by alleging a "rigged election" conspiracy against him that includes everything from election officials (in Republican states) to media companies to immigration officials allowing illegals in to vote - it has put Republicans in an awkward position. So they have responded by playing a little game in which they carefully distance themselves from the craziest aspects of Trump's conspiracy-mongering, while simultaneously feeding other, relatively-less-crazy-sounding aspects of it.
For instance, Mike Pence - who is widely held up as a "reasonable" Republican in comparison to Trump - has been saying that the election is "rigged," but only in the sense that the media, and not voting officials, are rigging it. He continues to suggest that "voter fraud" is a real problem and that concerned citizens should monitor it, albeit "respectfully." RNC chairman Reince Priebus has opted for a similar rhetorical trick.
Years of over-the-top GOP rhetoric - mostly concerning efforts to hype Barack Obama's presidency into an existential threat to everything that makes this country recognisably American - has laid the groundwork for Trump to make arguments that are even more garishly divorced from reality than the more carefully coded and modulated GOP arguments have been.
Voter fraud is a good example of this. Many Republican voters will be primed to believe that voter fraud was rampant on election day.
The question is whether that will leave them even more susceptible to Trump's claims that the outcome itself was "rigged" to its core, and thus entirely illegitimate - and whether that threatens further damage to the country's civic health long after the election is behind us.