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Perfect storm brews with potential confusion over the election results

Perfect storm brews with potential confusion over the election results
© Greg Nash

As Americans turn out for the election in record numbers, all eyes appear focused on how voters will cast their ballots. But how the candidates, and notably Donald Trump, respond to the election could be just as important for the future of the United States. Our research has indicated that a crisis in election confidence is brewing, and Trump could have the influence to determine whether a crisis boils over or simmers down.

In a recent Reality Check Insights survey of 1,350 Americans, 44 percent of Americans and 71 percent of Republicans agree or strongly agree that there will be significant voter fraud in the election. This is concerning on its own because widespread voter fraud has been consistently disproven. But responses to a second issue highlights the real challenge facing the country. When asked whom they trust most to declare the winner of the election, 46 percent of Republicans indicated Trump.

This means that most Republicans now doubt the validity of the election process, and nearly half are looking to Trump to declare the winner. His attacks on the election combined with a hesitation to ensure a peaceful transition of power have forced many to wonder whether he might claim victory early or reject and challenge the election results if he loses. If he does, a significant portion of Republicans appear ready to follow his lead. Such an outcome would surely increase these extreme levels of partisan division. This could also lead to chaos and civil unrest.

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What if Joe Biden loses? Many Democrats have stated they will most trust Biden, who stated he will honor the election results, to declare the winner. Democrats are also much less skeptical over the prospects of voter fraud than Republicans. Democrats appear much less trusting, however, of the potential role of the judiciary. Just 11 percent of Democrats, compared to 31 percent of Republicans, have said they would most trust the Supreme Court to declare the winner. If the Supreme Court will decide the results, confidence from Democrats in the outcome could fall.

The most troubling and most likely scenario relates to Trump. The election forecasts and national polls estimate Biden could be the likely winner. But the final outcome may not be known tonight. Trump has refused to ensure he will not declare a victory prematurely, and some reports indicate this is his plan. If Trump declares victory prematurely, many Republicans appear poised to stand behind such claims. If he challenges the election process, many Americans appear ready to accept this message.

The United States is in a precarious position right now. The combination of unbacked claims of voter fraud and nearly half of Republicans trusting the president most to declare the winner means that even if he loses the election, Trump could create confusion and political instability. That is a frightening amount of power for any losing candidate.

Peter Enns is professor at Cornell University, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, and a founder of Reality Check Insights. Ben Leff is the chief executive officer and a founder of Reality Check Insights.