The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

4 in 10 Republicans think foreign election interference would be a minor problem — or no problem at all

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a news conference in Helsinki on July 16. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
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American intelligence officials believe that Russian attempts to interfere in U.S. politics are ongoing. What became obvious during the 2016 campaign is recurring — continuing, really — with the apparent aim of introducing discord and disruption in the electoral process.

President Trump expressed concern (however sincerely) about that interference in a tweet last month.

“I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election,” he wrote. “Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!”

The timing of that assertion was odd, given that shortly before it was offered Russian President Vladimir Putin said explicitly in a news conference that he had wanted Trump to win the 2016 election. A new poll from CNN and its polling partner SSRS suggests another problem: A large percentage of Republicans don’t think that interference will happen and that, if it does, it’s not a big deal.

Most Americans say it’s at least somewhat likely that a foreign government (China or Russia in the poll question) will interfere with the 2018 midterms. A third of Americans say it’s very likely.

Most Republicans and most of those who approve of the job Trump is doing as president, though, disagree. More than 6 in 10 Republicans say it’s not too or not at all likely that interference will occur. More than a third of those who approve of Trump believe it’s not at all likely.

Obviously, this is partly a reflection of attitudes about the 2016 election interference. Most Republicans say they don’t think Russia interfered in 2016, reflecting the assertion put forward by Trump himself.

For many Trump supporters, acknowledgment that Russia interfered in the election is seen either as an admission that Trump’s election might warrant an asterisk or acceptance of analysis from U.S. intelligence agencies, a frequent target of Trump’s skepticism.

Last month, the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins posed an interesting question: If Trump were to embrace that interference and credit it with his election, would his supporters go along with praise for Russia? It seemed reasonable to guess that at least some would.

CNN’s poll gets close to that question. If interference did occur, the pollsters asked, how big a problem would that pose?

More than a quarter of Americans said it would be a crisis for the country. Nearly three-quarters said it would be at least a major problem. But, again, that wasn’t the case among Republicans.

How widespread is that? There are about 101 million Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in the country, according to Gallup’s latest estimates. That means that about 42 million Republicans don’t think interference in 2018 would be anything more than a minor issue. Of that group, 12.1 million think such interference wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Why? Certainly largely because the assumption is that the interference may have helped their candidate in 2016. To Coppins’s point, if interference happens but helps Republicans win, some Republicans — a minority, certainly — wouldn’t see that as much of a problem.

Trump’s warning in July was that the assistance would go to Democrats. If that occurred, it’s likely that, at least to some extent, that last graph above would flip. Interference on behalf of Democrats would not be considered quite as much of a nonissue among Republicans, it’s safe to assume.

Nor would Trump’s tweets about the issue probably have the same tinge of sarcasm.