Three-thousand Wisconsinites were chanting Donald Trump’s name. It was Oct. 17, 2016, just after the candidate’s now-infamous “locker-room” chat with Billy Bush became public knowledge. But the crowd was unfazed. They were happy. And they were rowdy, cheering for Trump, cheering for the USA, cheering for Hillary Clinton to see the inside of a jail cell. The extended applause lines meant it took Trump a good 20 minutes to get through the basics — thanks for having me, you are wonderful, my opponent is bad — and on to a rhetorical point that was quickly becoming a signature of his campaign: If we lose in November, Trump told the supporters in Green Bay, it’ll be because the election is rigged by millions of fraudulent voters — many of them illegal immigrants. That night wasn’t the first time Trump had made this accusation, but now he had statistics to support it. His campaign had recently begun to send the same data to reporters, as well. In both cases, one of the chief pieces of evidence was a peer-reviewed research paper published in 2014 by political scientists at Virginia’s Old Dominion University. The research showed that 14 percent of noncitizens were registered to vote, Trump told the crowd in Green Bay, enough of a margin to give the Democrats control of the Senate. Enough, he claimed, to have given North Carolina to Barack Obama in 2008.
“You don’t read about this, right? Your politicians don’t tell you about this when they tell you how legitimate all of those elections are. They don’t want to tell you about this,” Trump said. The crowd cried out in shock and anger.
But that’s not what the research showed. The 14 percent figure quoted by Trump was actually the upper end of the paper’s confidence interval — there’s a 97.5 percent chance that the true percentage of noncitizens registered to vote is lower than that. And, just as he got the data wrong, Trump also failed to tell his audience the full story behind the study.
By the time it got into his hands, that Old Dominion paper had already been heavily critiqued in the scientific community. The analysis hinged on a single, easy-to-make data error that can completely upend attempts to understand the behavior of minority groups, such as noncitizen residents of the United States. And even the paper’s authors say Trump misinterpreted their research. A couple of days after the Green Bay speech, one of them wrote up a blog post that countered much of what Trump had said, but it was a whisper in a roaring stadium. Months later — and despite having won the ostensibly rigged election — the Trump administration is still citing that paper as proof that fraudulent voting (especially by noncitizen immigrants) is pervasive, is widespread and alters electoral outcomes. On Thursday, the administration confirmed to several news outlets that it would be establishing a commission to investigate this fraud.