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Politicians and commentators on both sides of the aisle have expressed shock at Donald Trump’s refusal to say he’ll accept the outcome of the Nov. 8 election.
Many have said Trump’s comments, as well as his baseless accusations that the election is "rigged," are unprecedented in modern politics.
That includes his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
"During that debate, Donald said something — well, he said a lot of things that were troubling. But he said something truly horrifying: He became the first person running for president, Republican or Democrat, who refused to say that he would respect the results of this election," Clinton said at an Oct. 24 rally in New Hampshire. "Now that is a direct threat to our democracy."
We wondered if Trump really is the first presidential candidate in American history who would not say that he’ll accept the election results.
It’s difficult to prove a negative. But historians and experts in campaign rhetoric told us that while campaigns have challenged results after Election Day, they are unaware of any prior presidential candidate casting so much doubt about an election before it even happens.
Before we get into the historical context, let’s take a quick look at Trump’s exact words from the final presidential debate Oct. 19. Moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he would "absolutely accept the result of this election."
"I will look at it at the time," Trump said. "I'm not looking at anything now. I'll look at it at the time."
"But, sir," Wallace said, "there is a tradition in this country — in fact, one of the prides of this country — is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign that the loser concedes to the winner. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle?"
Trump responded, "What I'm saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense. Okay?"
The fact that Trump has to answer a question like this is a first, said Tammy Vigil, a Boston University professor who researches campaign rhetoric. There’s no precedent for a major party candidate being so publicly skeptical of an upcoming election.
"Most major party candidates do not make contesting the results an issue; it is simply assumed that they will accept the outcome of the vote," Vigil said. "For that reason few candidates are ever asked the question in as direct a manner as Trump was asked it in the debate. The fact of him having to answer a direct query makes it unusual, and so his answer is unusual."
Trump is certainly not the first candidate in recent memory to question whether there will be voter fraud. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain said the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Acorn, was "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
McCain's statement and others like it, though, are not equivalent to saying they might not accept the final results.
Historians pointed out several examples of elections in the 19th and 20th centuries when the popular vote or electoral college vote was so close that the final results were controversial. But in none of those cases did the presidential candidate challenge the election before it took happened.
Take the most recent example: the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the results of which eventually came down in a Supreme Court decision. In that case, it wasn’t until after Election Day that Gore requested the recount in Florida.
After an exceptionally close race between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960, some Republicans called for a recount, but Nixon distanced himself from them.
In the 1800s, several elections fell into the hands of Congress. In those cases, the political parties questioned whether the final results — not the popular vote but the pending congressional decisions — would be legitimate, said Alex Keyssar, a Harvard University professor and expert in voting history. However, he added that the candidates themselves did not question the legitimacy of the outcome before the election took place.
And eventually, they conceded, said Brian Rosenwald, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Even in 1800, 1824 and 1876, where resolutions took almost until Inauguration Day, we had an outcome accepted, if grudgingly and with concessions, from both parties," Rosenwald said. "People on the losing sides in these elections, as well as 1960 and 2000, often went to their graves believing that they’d had an election stolen from them, but they didn’t move to start or encourage a rebellion."
Also notable is the 1860 race. In the lead-up to that election, politicians in several southern states plotted to secede if Abraham Lincoln were to win, said Daniel Feller, a professor of mid 19th century history at the University of Tennessee.
Lincoln won, the southern states seceded, and the country descended into civil war.
But none of the four presidential candidates that year advocated on the campaign trail for secession if Lincoln were to win, Feller said. Additionally, the South viewed the election results as legitimate and as confirmation that the northern states wanted to stifle their way of life.
"Have other presidential candidates announced beforehand they would not accept the results of the election? Not to my knowledge," Feller said. "But has there been a case when enough Americans rejected the results of the election to disrupt the system? Yes."
Clinton said Trump is "the first person running for president, Republican or Democrat, who refused to say that he would respect the results of this election."
There are examples of presidential campaigns challenging elections or raising concerns about corruption after Election Day. But historians and experts cannot point to an example of a presidential candidate himself refusing to say he would accept the results before the election even happens.
We couldn't find one, either.
If an example of a past presidential candidate saying something equivalent to Trump comes up, or if we find additional information to support Clinton's claim, we’ll update our story. But with the information we have available, for now we rate Clinton’s claim Mostly True.
CQ, transcript from Clinton rally, Oct. 24, 2016
CQ, transcript from final presidential debate, Oct. 25, 2016
PBS Newshour, "Here’s what law and history say about challenging election results," Oct. 20, 2016
New York Times, "How Charges of Voter Fraud Became a Political Strategy," Oct. 21, 2016
Phone interview, University of Tennessee professor Daniel Feller, Oct. 25, 2016
Email interview, University of Pennsylvania fellow Brian Rosenwald, Oct. 24, 2016
Email interview, Boston University professor Tammy Vigil, Oct. 24, 2016
Email interview, Harvard University professor Alex Keyssar, Oct. 24, 2016
Email interview, Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin, Oct. 25, 2016
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