The California Senate race wasn’t ‘rigged’ either

The reason that Donald Trump’s allies began describing the 2020 presidential election as “rigged” was that it was more defensible than echoing his baseless and debunked claims about election fraud. Instead, they insisted that the rules had been unfairly changed or that turnout had been encouraged or that social media companies had conspired with the feds.

The beauty of “rigged” versus “stolen” was that the latter was easily disproved; you could simply show that illegal votes weren’t cast. But “rigged” is gauzier, an overarching implication of untoward behavior to which new theories can be added over time. Hence the appeal for Trump’s allies: They could point to pretty much anything as having played a role in rigging the election and, in so doing, retain fealty to Trump’s broader assessment that 2020 was unfair.

That same nebulousness is now being defensively deployed by a Democrat.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) lost her bid for the U.S. Senate in Tuesday’s primary elections. She came in third in the state’s all-comers system, trailing both Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and former baseball star Steve Garvey (R) by wide margins.

On Wednesday evening, she offered an explanation: The thing had been rigged.

“Thank you to everyone who supported our campaign and voted to shake up the status quo in Washington,” she wrote on social media. “Because of you, we had the establishment running scared — withstanding 3 to 1 in TV spending and an onslaught of billionaires spending millions to rig this election.”

After that comment triggered a widespread backlash — particularly from members of her party aghast at her mirroring Trumpian rhetoric — she put out a statement.

“‘Rigged’ means manipulated by dishonest means,” it began. “A few billionaires spent $10 million+ on attack ads against me, including an ad rated ‘false’ by an independent fact checker. That is dishonest means to manipulate an outcome. I said ‘rigged by billionaires’ and our politics are — in fact — manipulated by big dark money.”

In common parlance, “rigged” means more than what is presented above. It implies that the election was inherently biased to achieve an outcome. That’s how Trumpworld uses the term and that’s the way Porter’s original statement was read.

The argument in the statement is one that has been common on the left for decades, that the influence of big money taints election outcomes. But applying the word “rigged” in 2024 has a different connotation, including for the person who’s using it.

All of that aside, though, the central argument Porter makes is dubious.

In every poll conducted over the past few months, Schiff had the lead. At times, that lead was narrow and it was over Porter. More recently, Schiff’s lead was over Garvey. But there’s not much indication that Porter’s support was hurt over time; the 538 average of polls in the state shows her consistently in the midteens.

There were millions of dollars spent against Porter, money from the cryptocurrency industry that was a response to her criticism of the industry and its energy usage. One of the ads was criticized by the Sacramento Bee. But Porter also spent more than $20 million from her own campaign as of mid-February — less than the nearly $40 million Schiff had spent by that point but far more than Garvey or the fourth-place finisher, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

Garvey, too, was a target of robust outside spending — so much so that it dwarfed spending from his own campaign. But he came in second anyway, mostly because he was the biggest name on the Republican ticket.

There is a correlation between spending and support on the Democratic side. Lee had relatively little spending and came in third among Democrats. Porter had more, even taking out the spending against her. She came in second. Then, at the top, there’s Schiff, with the most spending and the most support.

If we assume that Porter hadn’t had that $10 million deployed against her and the same ratio of spending to support held, she’d be about where that light blue outlined circle was. And still in third — even if you assumed that all of her support would come from Schiff.

But there is an obvious reason that Schiff led the whole time: He was much better known. Over the past five years, there was more Google search interest in Schiff than Porter in 85 percent of weeks. Since 2017, when Schiff began to make a name for himself as an opponent of Donald Trump’s, he’s been mentioned in more than 17,000 15-second blocks on MSNBC — and more than 22,000 on Fox News. Porter’s been mentioned in about 2,300 blocks on both channels combined.

It was understandable that Trump would feel frustrated at losing in 2020 and similarly understandable that Porter would feel frustrated about being targeted by millions of dollars in outside spending. But what happened in California was not some nefarious force that was surreptitiously rigging electoral outcomes. For better or worse, it’s just how politics works. It wasn’t an effort to rig the election so that Porter can’t win. It was an effort to keep her from winning and — probably not even as a result of that spending — she didn’t.

Calling the election “rigged” doesn’t elevate a truth, it obscures one.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post