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What We Don't Know About Russian Interference in the 2016 Election

Rather than being honest about Russian influence in 2016, Republican leaders are trying to enhance the legitimacy of their own president and party.
President Donald Trump stands at the entrance of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Review these two statements:

  • We don't know whether Russian influence changed the outcome of the 2016 election.
  • We know that Russian influence didn't change the outcome of the 2016 election.

The words are very similar across the two sentences, but the meanings are dramatically different. Only the first statement is true, but we're starting to hear versions of the second one quite a bit from Republican leaders.

President Donald Trump claimed that "Russia's actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election." Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), even while strongly criticizing Russia for its role in the election, said, "I don't think they changed the outcome." Speaker of the House Paul Ryan insists that Russia's influence "didn't have a material effect" on the election. And then-Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo went so far as to say, "The intelligence community's assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election."

Just to be clear on this, the intelligence community said no such thing. It specifically said that it did not investigate whether Russian interference affected the outcome of the election.

A key point here that neither Trump's supporters nor his opponents are comfortable with is that we do not know whether Russia tipped the election, and we likely never will.

In general, it's almost impossible to say whether one specific thing occurring during a campaign changed that campaign's outcome. Barack Obama ran a strong ground game and had an innovative data analytics approach—would he have lost in 2008 without these? Did Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comments cost him the 2012 election? Did Superstorm Sandy? We can make some educated guesses about these things and examine shifts in polls related to them. But it's very difficult to know with certainty whether something actually changed an election's outcome.

For one thing, we don't get to run an election twice to see how outcomes change as we shift a variable or two. For another, we know from a great deal of research on elections that the effects of specific campaign events and tactics tend to be very small if they're even measurable. After all the events of the 2016 campaign, we should remember: Nine Democrats in 10 voted for Hillary Clinton, and nine Republicans in 10 voted for Trump; the election outcome was very close to fundamentals-based forecasts.

Also, as Nate Silver noted, the nature of the Russian influence makes it very difficult to determine its impact. Unlike the October 28th, 2016, James Comey letter—which occurred at a specific date around which we can track shifts in the polls—Russian influence was ongoing and interacted with other forms of campaigning. The Russians fed fake stories and hacked emails into already existing fights—some on social media, some in person—between liberals and conservatives, between blacks and whites, between Bernie Sanders Democrats and Clinton Democrats. Their influence sought to exacerbate existing tensions and erode legitimacy of candidates and institutions.

That quite plausibly affected some votes, and in such a close election, it's possible that it was determinative. But it's incredibly hard to demonstrate that one way or the other.

So why are Republican leaders jumping from the true "we don't know whether it changed the election" to the false "we know it didn't change the election"? The latter is the sort of mandate claim that Julia Azari has written about—it's a rhetorical attempt to enhance the legitimacy of a leader and party whose claim to leadership is in question. After all, if Trump's election is called into question, that undermines every Republican accomplishment that required his signature.

The choice by Republican leaders to resort to a false claim to boost Trump's legitimacy is thus understandable but regrettable. Knowing that a foreign power attempted to interfere with the outcome of a nationwide election is terrifying and threatens to undermine public confidence in elections. Elected officials could present the truth of what they know, then describe what they are doing to prevent future interference and what they are doing to punish Russia. However, they are, in fact, doing little to prevent future interference, and the president is going out of his way to minimize punishment for Russia.

Instead of enhancing the legitimacy of American democracy, they're trying to enhance the legitimacy of their own president and party.