BY NICHOLAS RICCARDI AND ALI SWENSON
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump walks backstage after speaking at a primary election night party in Nashua, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Rourke)
NEW YORK (AP) — After he won the New Hampshire Republican primary Tuesday night, former President Donald Trump complained about his main GOP rival, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, about immigration, inflation, and his likely opponent in November, President Joe Biden.
One thing he didn’t complain about: Voter fraud in the election he had just won.
That continues a pattern for Trump as he steamrolls through the GOP presidential primary and toward an increasingly likely November rematch with Biden. While Trump generally refrains from claiming voter fraud in elections he wins, he spends plenty of time laying the groundwork to cry fraud should he lose an upcoming vote. He’s already been doing that with an eye toward November’s general election.
“They used COVID to cheat. And they did a lot of other things, too. We’re not going to let that happen,” Trump said of Democrats in his Tuesday night speech to supporters in New Hampshire. “You can never forget history, because if you forget, you never, you never recover from it. And you repeat.”
For months, Trump has been alleging that he could be the victim of fraud in November, making the same sort of explosive, groundless allegations that fueled the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and have continued to spark a wave of threats against election workers nationwide. Trump made similar allegations before the 2020 election, predicting for months there would be widespread fraud that November and contending he could only lose if the election was stolen from him.
“He’s doing it out in full view,” said David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation & Research and coauthor of “The Big Truth,” about Trump’s 2020 election lies. “If he is the Republican nominee, he has made clear that he’ll lie about an election that he’s lost.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
His continued false claims about the 2020 election have resonated with Republican voters, a majority of whom believe Biden was not legitimately elected despite all evidence to the contrary. Trump lost dozens of court challenges, his own attorney general found no evidence of widespread fraud, and reviews, audits and recounts in the battleground states where he contested his loss all affirmed Biden’s victory.
Rachel Orey of the Bipartisan Policy Center said Trump’s preemptive allegations of fraud have become built into the nation’s political culture.
“It’s been normalized. I think what in 2020 was seen as somewhat outlandish is now an anticipated part of the process,” Orey said. “And, we see more and more candidates adopting the election denial tactics that Donald Trump is using, either as a way to thrust themselves into the national spotlight or as a way to fundraise.”
Setting the stage to blame an election loss on fraud has clear consequences, Orey said, pointing to the fact that threats and harassment against election officials after 2020 were especially severe in battleground states that Trump narrowly lost.
Iowa’s Republican caucuses illustrate Trump’s playbook. In 2016, he was narrowly defeated in the state by Sen. Ted Cruz and immediately — and without evidence — alleged that fraud was the reason. Last week, Trump won Iowa by a record margin and made no such allegations.
In the run-up to the more competitive New Hampshire primary, Trump walked the line on preemptively alleging foul play. He bemoaned that state law allows undeclared voters, who make up about 40% of the state’s electorate, to cast ballots in either party’s primary. That includes letting people registered with one party switch their affiliation before the January primary, as long as they did so before an October deadline. The state also allows same-day voter registration.
Trump falsely described this as letting “Democrats” vote in the Republican primary. One of his surrogates, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance went further, alleging without evidence that Haley was asking “liberal Democrats” to “come into this state” from Massachusetts and support her in the GOP primary.
Such a scheme wouldn’t be possible because the state’s same-day registrants must provide proof of identity and residency in New Hampshire. Trump held back from echoing Vance’s allegations Tuesday, though he did briefly reiterate the unfounded claim that Democrats voted for Haley before focusing on his victory.
Trump then claimed he won in 2020, perpetuating his falsehoods about that election. He also said he “won” in 2016, and it wasn’t clear whether he was repeating prior false claims about winning New Hampshire in that year’s general election, even though he lost it.
Despite his overall 2016 victory, Trump blamed losses in various states and in the popular vote on fraud that was never proven. A committee he empaneled to search for voter fraud disbanded without finding any.
On Tuesday, Trump also continued his use of explosive, sometimes authoritarian rhetoric about his rivals. He’s previously described Biden as the real threat to democracy because the Justice Department is prosecuting Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and for illegally keeping classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. In New Hampshire, Trump said Biden and his administration were “evil.”
“They are so bad at what they are doing and so evil, and they’re destroying our country,” Trump said.
If he loses in November, Trump told his supporters, “I think our country is finished.”
Steven Levitsky, a professor at Harvard and coauthor of “How Democracies Die,” said Trump’s refusal to admit defeat in elections combined with demonizing the other side is a textbook authoritarian tactic.
“When you convince your followers that your opponents represent an existential threat, you legitimize, you justify authoritarian measures,” Levitsky said. “And that’s what authoritarians do.”
Riccardi reported from Denver.