Republicans have been somewhat reluctant to jump whole-hog into investigating Russia's role in the 2016 election. And they have good reason: As I've mentioned, doing so inherently raises the possibility that Russia made the difference when it came to electing Donald Trump as president, given his tight margins in decisive states. Republicans don't want to cast any doubt on that. And Trump himself isn't even accepting the CIA's assessment that Russia tried to intervene.
Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2016
The good news for Republicans: At least for now, a strong majority of Americans don't think Russia tipped the scales.
A new bipartisan poll from Fox News shows 6 in 10 Americans say Russia's involvement didn't help Trump; 59 percent say it had no effect, while 1 percent say it helped Hillary Clinton (!). Among the rest, 11 percent say it helped Trump “a little,” while 21 percent think it helped Trump “a lot.” Seven percent say they don't know.
As you might have guessed, Democrats are much more likely to think Russia mattered. A majority of them (55 percent) think Russia helped Trump, and 40 percent think they helped him a lot. Among Republicans, just 8 percent say Russia's meddling benefited Trump, including just 2 percent who say it helped “a lot.” Yay, partisanship!
Helping “a lot” seems to be a good analog for actually having changed the result of the election — though given Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than one point each, it's possible that even “a little” influence could have changed the result. But for now, only about 2 in 10 or, at most, 3 in 10 Americans think Russia truly mattered in the 2016 election.
That, of course, could change as more is revealed about precisely what Russia did or didn't do to influence the election. A new NBC News report, for instance, says U.S. intelligence officials have a “high level of confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in the effort to meddle in the election.
This news, though, doesn't speak to the idea that Putin or Russia's meddling actually mattered; it just further details the apparent involvement and the intelligence community's belief that an effort actually existed.
And the fact that the story line has been out there for a while — three-quarters of Americans say they are at least somewhat familiar with the news of Russia's hacking — and people still don't think it mattered should make Republicans feel better about pursuing an investigation and letting the chips fall where they may. For now, basically only partisans appear to think it truly mattered, and even many Democrats are skeptical that it did. That's telling.
(This, by the way, is also bad news for the apparently doomed effort to get the electoral college to overturn Trump's election. Are dozens of faithless electors really going to flip the result based on something that only about 1 in 5 Americans believes?)
And in the end, it's very unlikely we'll ever have definitive proof that it actually mattered. As with most any electoral effect, it's basically impossible to say with certainty that one isolated variable truly swayed the election. You'd have to get in the heads of those people in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania after the fact.
We will probably learn a whole lot more about what Russia did and didn't do in the coming weeks and months. But at least at the start, it doesn't appear to present a crisis of confidence when it comes to just how legitimate Trump's election was.