The most consequential moment of the last presidential debate occurred when Republican nominee Donald Trump suggested he may reject the results of the November 8 election if he loses.
“I’ll look at it at the time,” said Trump, who’s currently well behind in the polls. “What I’ve seen is so bad. The media is so dishonest and so corrupt and the pile on is so amazing.”
After being pressed by moderator Chris Wallace, Trump reiterated his position.
“What I’m saying now is I will tell you at the time,” he said. “I will keep you in suspense, okay?”
Trump answer diverges from several hundred years of American tradition around the peaceful transfer power. This involves everyone, including the loser of the election and their supporters, to accept the legitimacy of the new president.
Trump’s surrogates, however, quickly settled on a talking point to normalize Trump’s remark — what Trump’s saying is really no different than what Al Gore did in 2000.
“You remember Al Gore in 2000?” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said after the debate in the spin room. “Nobody says ahead of time that they’re going to contest the election, but Al Gore did.”
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) October 20, 2016
Conway’s talking point was repeated by Trump surrogates Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Rudy Giuliani. But the comparison doesn’t hold up.
Gore never said, in advance of voting, he would consider rejecting the result. He did not even initiate a recount in the decisive state of Florida. A recount was automatically triggered because the margin between Gore and George W. Bush was so close after the first tally of the votes.
It ended up being a protracted contest because the candidates were separated in Florida by just a few hundred votes. (Gore won the national popular vote by more than 500,000 votes.)
Gore never claimed that American elections were “rigged.” Though he fought to include all ballots where voter intent could be determined, once the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Supreme Court of Florida’s decision that a manual recount should proceed, Gore graciously conceded.
“I accept the finality of the outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College,” Gore said on December 13, 2000. “And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
In short, Gore didn’t trigger a challenge to the initial results in Florida, but once a challenge began, he had good reason to let it unfold in the courts. When his legal options were exhausted, he conceded. He played by the rules.
Trump, in contrast, is raising the specter of massive voter fraud without any evidence to support him— a talking point he invokes while railing against the “rigged system.” The majority of state election systems are controlled by Republicans. Trump claims the media is also “rigged” against him but has benefitted from a disproportionate amount of free media coverage.
While Gore’s election was historically close, Trump is further behind than any candidate in history who has come back to win an election at this point in the cycle. FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast gives Clinton just less than a 90 percent chance of winning as of Thursday morning. A CNN poll conducted immediately after the final debate indicates Trump didn’t do himself any favors by suggesting he might reject the election results.