The Limits of Donald Trump's Accusations

The GOP presidential contender’s attacks on Ted Cruz don’t seem likely to help him attract new voters.

Dave Kaup / Reuters

Donald Trump just accused Ted Cruz of stealing.

On Wednesday morning, the Republican presidential contender fired off a series of tweets suggesting that his competitor stole votes in the Iowa caucuses and demanding a do-over. “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it,” Trump tweeted. “Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified,” he declared.

The claim sounds a bit like sour grapes coming just days after Trump took second place to Cruz among the Republican field in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest. But it’s not surprising. Trump has a track record of capturing the media spotlight with controversial statements after encountering campaign-trail setbacks. (The candidate called for the United States to ban Muslims from entering the nation after a poll showed him trailing Cruz in Iowa.) Trump is also no stranger to making accusations that things aren’t quite what they seem. The candidate has already sowed doubt over Cruz’s citizenship, claiming that the Texas senator’s Canadian birth may disqualify him from the presidency.

This time, Trump is accusing Cruz of unfairly siphoning off votes. On caucus night in Iowa on Monday, the Cruz campaign suggested that Republican candidate Ben Carson might drop out of the race, an apparent bid to persuade Carson supporters to switch their loyalty to Cruz. Carson criticized Cruz as a result, and on Tuesday, the candidate appeared to issue an apology, saying that his campaign should have circulated a statement “clarifying that he [Carson] was indeed staying in the race.” Trump is also attacking Cruz for sending out a controversial mailer to Iowa voters that essentially attempted to shame voters into caucusing. “The Voter Violation certificate gave poor marks to the unsuspecting voters (grade of F) and told them to clear it up by voting for Cruz. Fraud,” Trump tweeted. Team Cruz dismissed the allegations as a desperate bid for attention. “Since Iowa, no one is talking about Donald Trump,” said Cruz spokesperson Rick Tyler. “That’s why he’s popping off on Twitter.”

Accusing Cruz of stealing votes helps Trump preserve some dignity in defeat. He has run on a platform of promising to win so much that America actually gets sick of winning. Rather than admit that he lost fair and square in Iowa on Monday, Trump can now claim that the system was rigged. That will allow him to deflect criticism that he is in fact a loser. The attack is also guaranteed to tap into the vein of voter resentment that has so far fueled Trump’s rise. It feeds a narrative that Trump is an outsider fighting against political corruption, a story that Trump loyalists love to tell. Yet while the attack is likely to resonate with Trump fans, it may not do much to win undecided voters to his side. And after losing in Iowa this week, and with the New Hampshire primary looming, that may be an outcome that Trump can’t afford.

There’s a reason conspiracy theories resonate with voters. “It’s a way to explain a complicated event in a way that helps people maintain their worldview and protect their own self-esteem in some regard,” said Joanne Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota who has done research into the political psychology of conspiracy beliefs. There’s evidence that conspiracy theories resonate particularly well with conservative voters and with individuals who feel disempowered, a segment of the electorate that Trump and Cruz are currently fighting over.

The question now is how much this latest attack helps Trump. When Trump questioned Cruz’s citizenship, there were indications that the attack had an effect. A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll in Iowa released in mid-January showed that 15 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers were “bothered” by Cruz’s Canadian birth. But the poll suggested that the attack was especially resonant with Trump supporters. “The people it bothers are Trump people more than anybody else,” J. Ann Selzer, a widely respected pollster whose firm, Selzer & Co., conducted the survey, told Bloomberg. In other words, accusations intended to undermine Cruz seem to play well with Trump’s base but may be less compelling for voters who back other candidates or who haven’t made up their minds yet.

Political psychology also helps explain why Trump’s voter-fraud accusations could be particularly powerful for people who already support him. “For people who threw their weight behind Trump in Iowa only to see him lose, how do you explain that?” Miller asked. “One way is for supporters to say, ‘Well, maybe we’re wrong and other people are right,’ but that’s a painful admission. The easier thing for people to do, whether you call it a rationalization, a scapegoat, or a conspiracy, is to find a way to explain why their candidate lost in a way that helps them maintain the belief that they’re right.” Opting to believe Trump’s latest allegations against Cruz could provide validation for his fans. It's not clear how much they will appeal to anyone else.

Next week, New Hampshire voters will show up to the polls to pick that state’s presidential-primary winner. Trump’s accusations of voter fraud could rile up his supporters and might boost the odds that they turnout to vote. But it’s not at all certain that the attack will do anything to expand his share of the electorate, which clearly is something Trump would like to do heading into New Hampshire. After all, Trump’s attacks on Cruz’s Canadian birth weren’t enough for the candidate to win Iowa. That is, of course, unless you believe Trump and think the system was rigged.