Why did you vote the way you did in the 2016 election? What was it that made up your mind?
If you’re a hard partisan, that’s probably an easy question to answer: You voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton because you are a Republican or a Democrat. It’s how you vote. So then, why did you vote the way you did in the last mayor’s race where you live, or in some other local race where partisanship makes less difference? What was it that convinced you that Person X was preferable for Person Y, all else considered?
Maybe it’s because you did a ton of research into the candidates and identified those issues you found most important and lined up your vote accordingly. But there has certainly been an election at some point in time where you sort of threw a dart at a dartboard, relying on one random endorsement or a skim of a candidate’s bio or perhaps something a friend said online. It can be tough to identify why you voted the way you did — sometimes it’s sort of a sense that you picked up somewhere that led you to feel the way you did.
So the question “Did Russian meddling swing the 2016 election?” is harder than it might seem to answer.
There are a lot of layers to the question. It depends on an understanding of how the election turned out, what factors influence the outcomes of elections and knowing what Russia did. The first of those we can answer; the second is a bit trickier; the third, still murky.
We know that Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. We also know that doesn’t matter, that Trump’s victory in the electoral college tally is why he’s president. That victory stemmed from narrow margins in a handful of states — if 29,000 votes in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan had been cast for Clinton instead of Trump, she would be president today instead of him.
In Michigan, flipping 5,352 votes would have won her the state. Do we know that Russian meddling didn’t spur those 5,352 Trump voters to cast a ballot for him instead of her in the first place?
At this point, let’s interject and note that Trump, both on Twitter and in a statement from the White House, insists that the expansive indictment dropped by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Friday proves that Russian meddling didn’t affect the results of the 2016 election at all.
In essence, Trump’s combining the second and third layers above: The Russians didn’t do things that influenced votes.
Or perhaps, more simply, he’s making another case that he’s made before: The Russians didn’t directly change the vote tallies on Election Day and didn’t somehow commit widespread voter fraud on his behalf. It’s true that Mueller’s latest indictment against 13 Russian nationals and three organizations includes nothing about direct attempts to hack with vote tallies. It’s also true that there has been no demonstrated evidence that such tampering took place, and, in fact, it’s well-established that attempting to swing a national election in which voting is distributed among thousands of counties would be tremendously difficult.
Let’s examine, then, the more nuanced question that Trump seems to be rebutting: Did the Russians do anything to change votes in a way that flipped states like Michigan to Trump?
Here’s what the Russian Internet Research Agency allegedly did, according to this indictment:
- It bought ads promoting Trump and disparaging Clinton on social media, reaching thousands of people.
- It organized anti-Clinton events in several states and encouraged the media to cover them. Those events included elements meant to go viral: A person hired to impersonate Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform standing in a cage; a fake Clinton quote supporting sharia law on a sign.
- It built up social media accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers and shared messages promoting Trump and undercutting his opponents.
- It tried to tamp down support from likely Clinton supporters, including black Americans.
Were those enough to swing enough votes to Trump?
You can see that it’s impossible to say for certain, but that the most likely answer is no. Such subtle messages may have persuaded people not to vote for Clinton, implanting in their heads a negative sense of her as a candidate. They may have subtly pushed voters to back Trump in the way that we’ve all been quietly influenced to cast votes in the past. But the idea that the actions above moved thousands of votes in just the right places seems a stretch.
Take the social media ads alone. There were hundreds of thousands of people who saw messages sent by Russian social media accounts. But there are millions and millions of social media posts seen by Americans every day. The Russians poured water into a flood. Was it enough? It’s hard to say, but there’s not much evidence that it had a huge effect.
Former CIA director John Brennan offered his thoughts about Russia’s meddling on Twitter.
Some votes changed — but he doesn’t seem to think that very many were.
It’s important to remember, though, that the Friday indictments are not all that the Russians did. They also allegedly hacked into the Democratic National Committee and the email account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman. That stolen information almost certainly had a more significant effect on the campaign, given that the last month of the election focused heavily on the Podesta emails, in particular. Trump’s tweet portrays the day’s indictment as exculpatory, but the day’s indictment is only a part of the picture. It will be very hard to prove that the election was swung by the Russians without future evidence of their hackers somehow flipping 39,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but the question of the extent to which the Russians affected the results will linger.
For Trump, that’s the frustration. He wants the 2016 election to be seen as a mandate from the people on his behalf, a reflection of his exceptional campaign and candidacy. It’s why he has lied about there being rampant voter fraud; he wants to undermine Clinton’s popular-vote win. It’s why he keeps insisting that Russian meddling had no effect: He wants Americans to think he won on his own merits.
His other frustration, of course, is that people think he tried to help the Russians swing the election. He has claimed over and over that there was no collusion with the Russians, a claim that is either fully supported by the public evidence or already fully shown to be false — depending on your view. Does Donald Trump Jr.’s actively encouraging a meeting with a Russian national after being promised “dirt” from the Russian government qualify? A campaign adviser withholding knowledge about Russian hacking? How about what was revealed in Friday’s indictment: campaign staff connecting with the Russians apparently inadvertently to share information or provide campaign signs?
If you define collusion one way, Trump’s campaign colluded — if he didn’t. If you define the term another way, no collusion — coordinated meetings planning out electoral strategies — took place.
That dichotomy depends on how you feel about Trump, really. And it’s why it’s almost certain that, barring video of Trump handing Russian President Vladimir Putin a list of Macomb County voters to target, there will never be a unified understanding of what the Russians accomplished.
Did their meddling swing the election? To answer that, we’d need to ask every voter in three states every single thing they saw in 2016 and to evaluate which ones had the most effect on their vote. It’s basically unknowable. And that, for Trump, is a blessing and a curse.