Right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh has been busy this week helping to build up a conspiracy theory about the increased use of mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic, which has the potential to set off national chaos as votes are counted in the 2020 election.
While there is usually no overall partisan difference in the use of vote-by-mail, current polling has indicated that Democratic voters are becoming more likely to vote absentee than Republicans are — perhaps because Democrats are also more likely to take coronavirus seriously as a personal danger. That difference in turnout is where things could become tricky when combined with the potentially long counting process, as FiveThirtyEight explained: “Instead of learning who won on election night, we’ll likely have to wait days — or in some states, weeks — for full results, as the counting of mail ballots proceeds at a much slower pace than we are accustomed to.”
Josh Mendelsohn, CEO of Democratic data firm Hawkfish, warned in a new interview with Axios of the “very real possibility” of what he called a “red mirage,” in which Trump might be ahead in the votes counted immediately on election night, but that Biden would then pull ahead “when every legitimate vote is tallied and we get to that final day, which will be some day after Election Day. … It looked like Donald Trump was in the lead and he fundamentally was not when every ballot gets counted.”
And while Mendelsohn's group is trying to educate media and other observers to be careful about prematurely announcing an election night outcome based on just those early results, some news outlets are already off to a bad start in the way they're describing his points: The New York Times ran the headline “This Is Democrats’ Doomsday Scenario for Election Night,” while Mediaite ran an article titled “Democratic Pollster Predicts a Huge Trump Win on Election Night — But Says Biden Will End Up Winning Within a Week.”
Even Axios’ own headline failed to properly lay out the concern: “Exclusive: Dem group warns of apparent Trump Election Day landslide.” And while these three articles all did a better job in their body text of explaining the issue and the potential for Trump to stoke chaos out of it, the problem here is that most people don’t click past headlines, and news media have consistently failed to keep up with Trump’s lies in their headlines — which will become all the more crucial if this scenario actually does occur in November.
Trump, meanwhile, has been spreading conspiracy theories about mail-in voting since the spring, aided by numerous right-wing media personalities. But their campaign simply doesn’t align with the facts, which are that mail-in voting is safe and secure. And one of Trump’s preferred conspiracy theories has become the idea that absentee votes might be manipulated after election night.
And for his part, Limbaugh is also laying the groundwork for a possible Republican response to the “red mirage” scenario: to push the idea that only the election night numbers would be truly legitimate, and that the further vote counts to come from tallying mail-in ballots in the days and weeks afterward would be fraudulent. It’s exactly the idea that Mendelsohn has warned could not only set off panic during the election vote count, but also further destabilize American political life over the long haul.
On the August 31 edition of his show, during a segment in which Limbaugh claimed that Democrats must be secretly scared that Trump is regaining the lead, he offered some advice to his listeners that was clearly meant to play into these conspiracy theories.
“If you are concerned that the Democrats are going to cheat and that they’re going to engage in fraud, you know what the simple best retort to it is? You know what the simple best countermeasure is?” Limbaugh said. “Election Day, flood the zone. Show up. I’m talking about you who are going to vote Republican or are going to vote Trump. Show up on Election Day. Simply just smother the polling places.”
“If we flood polling places on actual Election Day, there’s nothing they’re going to be able to do,” he further argued. “Plus, it creates the mandate.”
The “mandate” comment seemed like a reference to the idea of building up a lead for Trump on election night, though without going into too much detail on the ramifications of what might come next. But in fact, Limbaugh was only just getting started.
On the September 1 edition of his show, Limbaugh made the conspiracy theory explicit when he talked about the Axios article, claiming that it was really “coded language” for a vast conspiracy of Democrats fraudulently manipulating the absentee ballots after the Election Day vote numbers have been counted.
Then on September 2, Limbaugh discussed public comments by 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who told Showtime’s The Circus that Biden should not concede the election “because I think this is going to drag out, and eventually I do believe he will win if we don't give an inch, and if we are as focused and relentless as the other side is.” For one thing, Clinton said she believed that Trump would attempt to “mess up absentee balloting.”
But here, Limbaugh saw this accusation from Clinton as really being a message about Democratic malfeasance: “And remember the Axios story yesterday? The election night, it’s going to look like Trump has won in a major landslide, popular vote and Electoral College. But wait a week, we count the mail-in ballots, and Biden’s going to win. That’s what they are setting up now.”
Just to be clear, Trump admitted last month that he opposed providing more funding for the Postal Service because it would help to advance mail-in voting.
And on September 3, Limbaugh claimed Democrats had managed to “enlist” Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House coronavirus task force to scare people out of voting at the polls on Election Day by saying that the rates of coronavirus infections are still unacceptably high.
“But they know, they know that they're at a distinct disadvantage if you, if our side shows up in person to vote,” Limbaugh said, tying his own extensive record of coronavirus denialism and conspiracy theories into yet another narrative — one that could have devastating consequences for the country after Election Day.”