Near the very end of Tuesday's mostly unwatchable debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, there was actually a single important moment that could have ramifications on and beyond Election Day.
By now, it's no secret that the outcome of this year's presidential election might not be known on November 3. Due to the abnormally high number of mail-in and absentee ballots that are expected to be cast this year—and compounded by the fact that several states, including some important swing states, are not allowed to start counting those ballots before Election Day—there will likely be a large number of completely legitimate votes that won't be counted in the hours immediately after polls close. If the election is close, how the two top candidates act in the immediate aftermath of an uncalled contest will be crucial to securing the legitimacy of the election.
With that in mind, debate moderator Chris Wallace asked both candidates on Tuesday night if they would urge their "supporters to stay calm during this extended period, not to engage in any civil unrest" and pledge that neither would declare victory until the results were final.
Trump immediately rejected the premise.
"I am urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully," he said, before spiraling off into a tangent about how some of his supporters were "thrown out" of polling places in Philadelphia earlier today. "You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia," Trump said.
Fair enough. But in this case, it doesn't look as devious as the president is trying to make it sound. City commissioners in Philadelphia have denied that anyone was unfairly tossed from election offices processing mail-in ballots, according to the local CBS affiliate.
Later in the same answer, Trump accused Democrats of cheating because of reports that "they found ballots in a wastepaper basket three days ago…and they all had the name 'Trump' on them."
Again, there's a bit of truth here. The FBI and the Pennsylvania State Police are investigating an incident in which nine ballots were apparently discarded in a Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, election office. At this point, it remains unclear whether those ballots were discarded for legitimate reasons. But Trump and his supporters have seized on the fact that at least seven of the votes were cast for the incumbent president as proof of malfeasance.
All of that only makes it more important for Trump, Biden, and everyone else to keep their shit together for the next six or eight or 10 weeks. But Trump's ultimate goal is not allowing law enforcement to determine the truth about whether those nine ballots were legitimately discarded. He'd much rather use the incident as a wedge to raise questions about the legitimacy of the entire election.
As Wallace dutifully pointed out, there were more than 31 million mail-in votes cast in the 2018 election—more than a quarter of all votes. As Biden pointed out, there are five states where elections are now conducted almost entirely by mail—and he could have pointed out that at least one of those vote-by-mail systems, in Colorado, was implemented by a Republican. No matter how many times Trump tries to claim otherwise, it is simply not true that more mail-in voting will disadvantage Republicans.
Biden's response to the same question from Wallace was exactly what you'd hope to hear from a national leader. "Yes," he said, he would wait to declare victory until the race was certified. "No one has established at all that there is fraud related to mail-in ballots," he added. "I will accept [the outcome]."
But it matters that Trump won't say he trusts the process, and it matters that he won't tell his supporters to wait for the results to be counted. It matters that he seems willing to turn everything into a conspiracy directed against him.
"This is not going to end well," Trump said at the very end of his tirade.
It might turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.