How should the United States respond to Russian interference in the 2016 election? That debate has roiled the very top of the U.S. government. President Obama announced diplomatic sanctions in response. But President-elect Donald Trump said the United States should “move on” — and even questioned whether Russia actually perpetrated the cyberattacks.
Meanwhile, influential Republicans such as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) have argued that the sanctions are “a small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy.” These senators pointedly suggested that responding to Russia’s meddling in a U.S. election “cannot become a partisan issue.”
But is it too late? Recent public opinion data shows that party identification has become increasingly important in determining whether individuals see Russia as a friend or foe.
However, our research suggests that these partisan differences do not influence what kind of retaliation Americans would support in the aftermaths of a range of Russian cyberattacks.
How we did our research
This apparent paradox emerged from an experiment we conducted using the online platform Amazon Turk, surveying 2,100 respondents from Dec. 26 to 29, 2016. We asked people to respond to hypothetical attack scenarios that varied in four different ways, the details of which you can find in our draft paper. In all versions, Russia was named as the likely perpetrator because of its ongoing involvement in a range of cyberattack-related activities.
The first two parameters involved aspects of the cyberattack itself. One varied the nature of the attack, with one set of attacks resulting in casualties and another in economic loss. The casualties came from (theoretical) attacks on the computer systems of several nuclear power plants, causing core meltdowns and radioactive contamination. The economic consequences came from (equally theoretical) attacks on the computer systems of several of the nation’s banks, stealing billions of dollars.
Second, we varied whether the cyberattack’s effects were small or large, comparing thousands versus hundreds of casualties, and a couple of billion or tens of billions of dollars stolen.
A second set of factors dealt with how certain the United States was about the attacks’ source. In the first, U.S. intelligence services reported that Russia was either “probably” or “almost certainly” involved in the cyberattack. According to the CIA’s website, this shift in language means it believes there is a 63 to 86 percent or an 87 to 99 percent likelihood respectively.
In the second, we explored whether partisan differences affected respondents’ attitudes toward these intelligence estimates. Some respondents were told that the CIA and FBI assessments had bipartisan support; others were told that they did not.
After respondents read short descriptions of the hypothetical situation, we asked them which of these they would support:
- Gathering more information before responding.
- Imposing economic sanctions.
- Carrying out a retaliatory cyberattack against the perpetrator.
- Conducting airstrikes against Russia.
We also asked whether individuals consider Russia to be an ally of the United States; friendly but not an ally; unfriendly; or an enemy of the United States.
Partisan differences didn’t matter. Americans supported retaliation
Consistent with recent YouGov data on partisan differences toward Russia, almost 85 percent of Democrats viewed Russia as being either unfriendly or an enemy. That view was held by 65 percent of independents and 53 percent of Republicans.
And yet these differences in attitudes toward Russia had no effect on what respondents thought the United States should do to respond to cyberattacks. About 36 percent of Republicans supported retaliatory airstrikes, while only 31 percent of independents and 33 percent of Democrats did. But these differences are not statistically significant.
The only partisan difference in what respondents thought the United States should do in response to Russian cyberattacks came on economic sanctions. While 90 percent of Democrats said they would support sanctions, only 76 percent of independents and 81 percent of Republicans did. But even that difference isn’t much in light of such high support overall.
What explains such little partisan difference on how to retaliate?
Given that partisanship seems to influence almost every other political belief, why such unity here? In the section where we invited open-ended responses, respondents offered useful clues. They indicated that they were heavily weighing the political and military consequences of the use of force. For example, a number of individuals mentioned a reluctance to retaliate out of fear that doing so would trigger “World War III.” Similarly, many respondents referred to Russia’s nuclear weapons as a deterrent against aggressive retaliation. These strategic factors were likely diluting any partisan differences.
But the major factor that influenced respondents’ support for retaliation was whether an intelligence assessment about who had perpetrated an attack had bipartisan consensus. There was about a 5 or 6 percent increase in support for all forms of retaliation when both parties endorsed the assessment than when there were partisan divides on the intelligence estimates.
Respondents were likely to see bipartisan consensus as so unusual that when it does happen, it sends an especially strong signal about the objective merits of the assessment.
Our results suggest that partisan divides and attitudes may not necessarily compromise the public’s understanding of the U.S. national interest or its strategic options after a serious cyberattack. They also suggest that President Obama’s sanctions on Russia would have overwhelming bipartisan public support despite differing partisan attitudes on Russia’s friendliness to the United States.
Sarah Kreps is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. She is the author, most recently, of Drone Warfare: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016). Follow her on Twitter @sekreps.
Debak Das is a PhD student in the Department of Government at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter@debakD.