So, three weeks after the June 7 primary, the State of California is still slowly counting ballots, mostly late mail-in and “provisional” ballots, feeding a never-ending conspiracy theory among Bernie Sanders hard-liners that he actually won the Golden State, or that vote-counters are in the process of stealing California for Clinton. There are now 586,000 ballots left to count, an undefined (but real) number of them for the Republican presidential primary, and a majority of them provisional ballots that may well have fatal errors (voting by people not actually registered, etc.). Hillary Clinton’s lead remains a bit over 400,000, and her statewide margin over Sanders since Election Day has declined from a landslide-y 11 percent on Election Night to a mere big-victory 8 percent today.
As Nate Cohn reports today at the Upshot, the many communications he’s getting from Bernie or Bust folk indicates they have pre-delegitimized Clinton’s California win anyway. If Sanders wins in the final tally or even gets close, then the media deliberately covered it up. If he loses after provisional ballots are thrown out, then his win has been stolen. It’s a closed epistemic system.
Now, such conspiracy claims are not emanating from the official Bernie Sanders campaign. But the closer we get to the Democratic National Convention, the more it seems possible that Sanders could endorse and even campaign for Hillary Clinton without ever conceding she beat him fair and square. After all, the piquancy of his demand for nominating-process reforms depends on the feeling that the system this time around was indeed “rigged,” with the way California handled votes by pro-Bernie No Party Preference (i.e., independent) voters being part of the “rigging” (as always, California required indies participating in the Democratic primary to ask for a Democratic ballot, even when voting by mail. That was naturally confusing — especially to first-time voters — since all non-presidential contests involved a single ballot for everybody). After the convention is over and Bernie has raised hands with Clinton and her running mate on the final night, the whole point of making this sort of concession may become moot. So the legend of Bernie being robbed of the nomination could well live on.
So let’s say late on the night of November 8, or early in the morning of November 9, Clinton is declared the winner of the general election by something less than a landslide nationally, with a close enough margin in some states to justify claims that moving around this or that small group of voters might have produced a Donald Trump win instead. How will Trump and his fans react? Think a conspiracy theory might come to mind? Will the guy who for months couldn’t stop alleging that Ted Cruz “stole” Iowa by “lying” about Ben Carson’s candidacy (a very minor event on caucus night, even if you believe Team Cruz was “lying” about Carson’s possible withdrawal from the race rather than understandably misinterpreting his stated desire to take a “break”) is going to concede easily, or at all? It’s really unlikely, when you think about it.
And so, as Nate Cohn says:
Clinton could go down as the first candidate to win both the nomination and the presidency — perhaps even decisively — without a proper concession.
Maybe it won’t matter to her, but in terms of her ability to govern, the persistence of claims that she did not legitimately become president could be one of many factors making the 45th president’s job that much harder.