The Russians Were Here, But Did They Make a Difference?

About a year or so ago I wrote a post about how the Russian meddling in our election was serious and ought to be investigated, although I doubted it made a measurable change in the election result. I want to revisit that now, very briefly.

Last December, Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight wrote a post that compared the timing of Wikileaks releases with the polls. In brief, he found no clear pattern that showed the Wikileaks releases of allegedly hacked DNC and Leon Podesta emails had any impact on polls. Further, interest in Wikileaks on social media seemed to have no correlation with polls. Enten wrote,

There just isn’t a clean-cut story in the data. For instance, you might have expected a decline in the percentage of Americans who trusted Clinton after WikiLeaks began its releases. As Politico’s Ken Vogel pointed out in mid-October, both Trump campaign officials and even progressives said the WikiLeaks emails revealed that Clinton would be “compromised” if she became president. But the percentage of Americans who found Clinton to be honest or trustworthy stayed at around 30 percent in polling throughout October and into November.

The evidence that WikiLeaks had an impact, therefore, is circumstantial.

The first Wikileaks email drop was on July 22, 2016. This was way too late to help Bernie Sanders, note. Assange appears to have held on to the emails until the eve of the DNC convention, which began on July 25. And I seriously think that by that time, people’s opinions of Clinton were set in stone. The only people I saw who paid attention to what was in the emails were disgruntled Sanders supporters, because the emails appeared to support what they already thought to be true about unfair primaries. Clintonphiles ignored them.

The same thing may have been true of the infamous Russian-based social media ads we have learned about more recently. Babak Bahador wrote at WaPo that it’s not clear that the social media ads changed any minds, either.

Confirmation bias is one reason that contemporary research has concluded that, for the most part, political advertising and messaging aren’t very effective in changing minds. For instance, the effects of political advertising are short-term and fleeting, as people’s attitudes bounce back pretty quickly from such attempts to persuade them. Even on social media, recent research suggests that ads do not impart new information or change attitudes. Moreover, the people most susceptible to propaganda — those with weak political attitudes — are least likely to pay attention to political messages, online or elsewhere.

This is not to say that advertising media like Facebook shouldn’t be required to reveal who is paying for political advertising. The social media ads could have made a difference, even if we can’t be sure that they did.

The most serious allegation from DHS is that Russian hackers targeted the election systems of several states. But there is no evidence votes were altered, DHS said.

See also “Demographics, Not Hacking, Explain Election Results” at FiveThirtyEight. There’s a meme that goes around occasionally claiming that the 2016 general election results were so far off from the polls that hackers must have changed the votes, but the polling nerds say that’s not so.

I bring this up because Clinton and other Democrats involved in last year’s election have been going around questioning Trump’s legitimacy.

A year after her defeat by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton says “there are lots of questions about its legitimacy” due to Russian interference and widespread voter suppression efforts.

In an interview with Mother Jones in downtown Manhattan, Clinton said Russian meddling in the election “was one of the major contributors to the outcome.” The Russians used “weaponized false information,” she said, in “a very successful disinformation campaign” that “wasn’t just influencing voters–it was determining the outcome.”

Voter suppression could have been a factor and ought to be thoroughly investigated, of course, but the guys at FiveThirtyEight say that voter turnout in 2016 wasn’t really that different from 2012.

As I’m sure you have heard, fewer than 80,000 votes cost Clinton Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and thereby the Electoral College. Clinton lost a lot of former Obama voters in those states. But beside Russian meddling and voter suppression, what other differences might there have been between Clinton’s and Obama’s campaigns?

Here’s one: She didn’t open nearly as many field offices as Obama did.

Clinton’s efforts in the field simply did not measure up to Barack Obama’s: Democrats were concerned throughout the campaign that Clinton was not assembling the “army of volunteers” necessary to get out the vote, and that worry may have been well founded. Clinton had 537 offices around the country, much fewer than Obama in 2008 (947 offices) or 2012 (789) across the map and particularly in battleground states.

Clinton’s campaign went to Wisconsin, even if she did not, but only opened 40 offices — just over half of Obama’s total of 69 in 2012. In Milwaukee County, the largest source of Democratic votes in the state, Clinton opened only four offices compared to Obama’s 10. Dane County, home to Madison, received only three offices, compared to seven from Obama. Outside the large cities, Clinton failed to open offices in 10 counties (with a total population exceeding Madison) where Obama had an office in 2012, including counties where she received more than 40 percent of the vote, such as Richland, Portage, and Douglas counties.

Democratic turnout declined by approximately 44,000 votes in Milwaukee County alone from 2012 to 2016, from more than 332,400 votes to nearly 289,000, a margin greater than Clinton’s loss in the state. Clinton could have withstood her losses in rural communities with only 23,000 more votes out of Milwaukee, before even addressing the 10 ignored counties above. Given the stakes of Milwaukee turnout, failing to match Obama’s ground game there seems like a mistake in hindsight.

In the Mother Jones interview linked above, Clinton blamed voter ID laws for her loss in Wisconsin. But given that she knew about voter ID laws, wouldn’t it have been prudent to have opened a lot more bleeping field offices in Wisconsin? And the damn shame of it is, she had plenty of bleeping money. She spent more money on her campaign in 2016 than Obama spent in 2012.

However much Trump is an insult to the very concept of leadership, I think Democrats need to stop whining and admit they blew the bleeping election. Trump may be ghastly and appalling, but he’s probably legitimate.

26 thoughts on “The Russians Were Here, But Did They Make a Difference?

  1. Individually, I don't think any of those factors affected the result.  

    But it's damn hard, if not impossible, to figure out the cumulative damage they all did.

    Having said that, I think that one of the most important factors in Clinton's defeat was overconfidence by her and her campaign team.

    They were like a cocky division leading baseball team which was enjoying racking-up a hell of a lot more hits than the pathetic last place team they were playing – only to be shocked that the final score showed that they had lost a close game.

    It ain't the the most hits (the popular vote) which determines the winner – it's the most runs (the Electoral College votes)!


  2. Well it made a big difference to me. Even if the Russian interference only amounted to one vote cast for that big bag of shit it's one vote too many. The way I see it is that any attempt to knowingly enlist the aid of a foreign government to subvert our democratic process is an act of treason. 

    Not to get into a black hole of debate wrangling over the technical / legal definition of what constitutes treason..I mean it to be the idea and fact that you sold your country out for personal gain in any respect under any conditions. And that is exactly what Trump did. He prostituted a sacred value that millions of Americans gave their lives uphold.

     He a pig, he's a coward, and he's a big bag of shit. A fraud extraordinaire ! 

    Thanks for the opportunity for some quality therapy, Maha.

  3. "Trump may be ghastly and appalling, but he’s probably legitimate"

    I'm waiting until Mueller's investigation is complete, the examples you cite and your own analysis can't and don't factor in what he may uncover. My hunch is that the election was stolen, but I could certainly be wrong?

  4. Eh, I listen to the 538 podcast regularly and Enten also makes a point near continuously not to overread analysis from just after an election.  To that end, regarding Clinton's offices in Wisconsin, here's 538 from just a few months later offering a bit more nuance:

    Race was a huge factor this election and white people came out for the guy they felt was sympathetic to their's.  Add in other stuff, like the Comey letter, which Silver convincingly argues made the difference, and you have our current shitty situation.

    It seems to me Democrats have done nothing but torn themselves assunder over the election.  What made November 8th of this year so nice and refreshing is Democrats (and Left-minded groups and organizations) showed they could move past the self-immolation and win.

  5. Regardless of whether the Russians had an impact or not, when a career politician with a track record of accomplishment, following an incumbent of her own party that left the country and particularly the economy in great shape, go on to lose by 80,000 votes to an opponent like Trump, a moronic, dumb, openly bigoted and sexually abusive political neophyte, then its not too much to expect some acceptance of responsibility for the loss.  Sure, the Russians were a problem, and I don't doubt that Trump and the GOP were in cahoots with them.  But even given all that, it was still a winnable election.

    Instead, there's not only little if any accountability on the part of Clinton or the DNC, but mostly excuses and blame.

    My Clintonite friends and family tell me that:

    1) Clinton winning the election in retrospect was essentially impossible because of the Russians and the white working class.

    2)  Its the voters fault for not coming out to vote in the states that she was expected to win but lost.

    3) Sanders (and fill in the blank for the excuse du jour)

    4. Black voters didn't come out for her to the extent they did Obama.

    Yet the things one would be expected to do to overcome the aboves are the kinds of tasks one might have on a job description for a politician, e.g. comes with the territory. And yet an honest assessment is Clinton and her campaign fell short in every one.

    While Tom Perez and the still heavily Clinton influenced DNC circle the wagons around party donors and double down past organizational mistakes as they hurtle obliviously towards the next loss, inoculated by their relative wealth and positions from the devastation that the Trump led GOP is plotting and planning to visit upon the rest of us, it would be "nice" to hear some acceptance of responsibility for that.  At least as a way forward from some of the mistakes of 2016 that surely contributed to the loss.  I'm not hopeful.

  6. It's almost impossible to determine how any one story affected an election—it's an example of what mathematicians like me call an "ill-posed problem" (sorry)—but there was one story that blew up out of the last set of leaked emails that I think might well have flipped the outcome.

    One of the emails was from some staffer at either the DNC or the campaign itself, and he (I'm fairly sure of the gender) openly expressed concern about the Clinton Foundation paying for Chelsea's wedding.  This prompted a plethora of stories from expected sources about the corruption of the Clinton Foundation.  Now, I never saw any explanation of *why* this person wrote this email, but there were some stories making it clear that, no, the Foundation hadn't paid for the wedding.  However, as we all know, the untruth travels faster and farther than the correction.  Part of the data analysis, I believe, is that late-deciding voters broke for Trump (he set a record for largest Electoral Vote edge in "close" states; it used to be ~40, and he got ~70), and a last minute headline like this might well have pushed enough people to vote the wrong way.  In addition, as I think someone said upstream, the constant drumbeat from the fake FB and Twitter sites helped feed a negative image of HRC that couldn't have been good for her.  So I think she probably wins if the Russians don't interfere.

  7. The one reason I'll never say that Trump is legitimate is the one issue that everyone agrees changed the course of the election (and therefore, probably the outcome): Comey's actions. The Republicans successfully used their investigative powers for partisan advantage, and swayed law enforcement to partake of the same corruption.

    Now: whether Russian interference changed the election or not, I'd also say that Trump has lost legitimacy if he conspired with a hostile foreign power to try to sway the election. In a sporting event, if one side commits blatant, egregious fouls, deliberately, they've lost the chance to win legitimately. It doesn't matter if, by chance, they win and there's no way to trace their win to their deliberate violation of the rules – as soon as you claim the rules don't apply to you, *you can't win the game*. Because the rules determine who wins, see. If the rules don't apply to you, then they can't declare you the winner. You might take home the trophy, and all the glory and rewards of the win, but you didn't win *legitimately*. Someone who learns the truth will say "wow, this person cheated, and created an illegitimate outcome."

    Note that this is a different question than whether Clinton, or the Democrats, should accept that they "blew" the election. I'm explaining why the GOP has, now and forever, lost legitimacy in my eyes. It's bad enough to use the power of the government for sheer partisan advantage; it's completely damning to use the power of law enforcement in the same manner.

  8. I suspect — OC, who knows? — that hacking got Trump elected. I watched the election returns, and there was a strange interlude of 15-20 min. during which the newsroom commentators were looking around wondering what to say, because no returns were coming in. That is rather strange. We have a large nation with many polling places, all of which were still open, as I recall. What was holding up results?

    At the time my guess was that no returns were coming in because voting totals were being altered in several places at once. I suspected Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, the first two because of a history of suspicious results, Ohio because a judge had denied a motion to require their voting machines to keep an audit trail. I predicted then that Trump would win. Kawabunga!

  9. Hacking the voting totals would have taken the fun and the challenge for Putin out of tipping the election in Trump's favor. Putin is a little too sinister to engage in such an entry level tactic. I'm sure the order of the day for the KGB or FSB ( whatever name they go by these days) was to effect a Trump victory where Trump himself believed he had won of his own accord.

    We'll never know to what extent the Russian meddling effected our election. But we do know they stoked every hot button issue that would create division and exacerbate existing tensions that would accrue  favorably to a Trump vote. And seeing how close the vote totals were… it's more than a safe assumption to think that the Russian interference threw the election in Trump's favor.

     Another factor to consider is the targeted effort at certain electoral districts to bombard  with negative, anti-Hillary comments and falsehoods by Russian bots. It is said, and rightly so, that no matter how well the Russian knew what to target, they needed some Trump campaign assistance to know where to target. Where to concentrate their bot attacks most efficiently.  

     Maybe that's a conspiracy theory view? But to me it reeks of collusion.

    It'll be a cold day in hell when I come around to acceding Trump legitimacy. He's a big bag of shit..then, now, and forever.

  10. Weirdo, Comey's role in this whole thing is widely misunderstood. It's just not true that Comey wanted Trump elected. Giuliani and Jim Kallstrom were the leaders of the Trump faction in the FBI. After Comey cleared Clinton, they went on what the late Wayne Barrett called an "anti-Comey romp." 

    It was this faction that forced Comey into a position where he had no good options, but took what he believed to be the least bad option.



  11. Hi, maha,

    Happy Thanksgiving! 🙂

    I read the 538 article, and it was a disappointment, statistically speaking. What they did was to compare returns from counties that used voting machines versus returns from counties that used paper ballots, in states with less than a 10% difference between Clinton and Trump, and failed to find any statistically significant difference. Late in the article they did admit that nobody knows whether hacking occurred, which is what I said up front.

    The main reason that I said that the article was a disappointment from a statistical point of view is that it ignored the fact that any hacking would be highly targeted, and that we know the possible targets. A 10 point margin is too large to swing, no hackers would bother to try. The authors spread their net too wide. Also, suppose that they had found a statistically significant difference between those counties. All that would have done would have been to increase our suspicion that hacking had occurred. Their failure to do so does not decrease our suspicion, as the number of votes required to swing the election was small. To address that suspicion a forensic analysis was required.


    • Billion — Given the utter lack of evidence that any hacks of election systems got through, one must assume the final votes were what they were.

  12. Indeed, there is no evidence of hacking to the extent that vote totals were changed, only speculation. 

    But the bottom line (at least for me) is, regardless of what the Russians may or may not have succeeded at doing that were out of Clinton's control, there is evidence that there were many things that were in Clinton's control that were either done or not done that surely DID cost her the election.

  13. Hi, maha,

    Hacking of voting machines and computers used to tabulate returns is not difficult to do, but is difficult to prove, especially if the election results are not contested. For instance, it is easy to erase someone's vote for a particular choice, such as president, while leaving the rest of the ballot intact, because you don't have to vote for each office. Switching the vote is more likely to raise questions. As long as the swing is only 1 or 2%, that is virtually undetectable except by a recount. And if there are no paper ballots to use for a recount, forget it.

    So yes, we have to accept the election result, but we don't have to believe it. When you look at several elections, and research has been done on that, suspicious patterns have been detected. Hacking has not been proven in any particular case, but elections are easier to hack than, say, the Defense Department, and we know that that has been hacked. We need to make our elections as secure as we can.

    • Billikin — I’m all for secure elections, but I think blaming hacking is a cop out. Our political culture and the corruption/ineptitude of both parties is to blame for last year’s results. As comforting as it might be to believe that the election result was false, I think we need to own up to the reality that it wasn’t.

  14. You are misreading me, maha. True, I think that it is likely that hacking cost Clinton Pennsylvania, maybe Florida. Yes, I am almost certain that hacking occurred, whether it made a difference or not. It’s too easy to do, and the stakes are high. But many things came together to give us President Trump.

    Most of the commentary is about proximate events, but IMO it was a long time in the making. Without George Wallace, would we have gotten Trump? Maybe not. Wallace showed Nixon that a Southern strategy could work. He showed Trump that blatant racism can work (if Trump needed to be shown). And what about Obama? Whatever happened to Yes We Can? Whatever happened to his strong grassroots support? He did not pass it on to other Democrats. He did not use it to prevent the Republican takeover of the states and Congress. I could go on, but I would be repeating familiar refrains.

    Politics is not easy. I am dismayed that the Republican Party has become the party of John C. Calhoun, but there you are. By contrast, securing our elections is relatively easy.

  15. Jeez Louise.

    For some reason, it still seems necessary to point out that there's not a requirement for a binary choice to be made between (1) The Rooskies perverted our election, and (2) Hillary Clinton blew it.

    (1) and (2) are both correct.

    • Joel Dan Wallis — Except, as I believe I carefully explained, nothing the Russians allegedly did had any measurable effect. They may have had a small effect, and there were other “external” factors, such as the Comey letter of late October, that did correspond to a drop in Clinton’s poll numbers. But I think if you listed the top 20 factors, both within and without the Clinton campaign, that cost her the election in order of importance, the Russians would be about #17. Most of the top ten reasons would be Clinton campaign mistakes.

  16. priscianus jr , I don't know that I'm "misunderstanding" Comey's role.

    He knew the GOP was trying to imply Hillary Clinton was a criminal. He played along. He was the nation's top law enforcement officer. Whatever his reasons, he was part of a corrupt government.

    When you are a responsible government official, and you know there is a corrupt abuse of power going on, you must take action to stop it, or you're complicit.

    The absolute *best* defense I can see for him is, he knew Hillary would win anyway, and he was "only" firing up the GOP base for unending partisan warfare. That was still an egregious ethical breach for law enforcement.

  17. "lost her the election in order of importance, the Russians would be about #17 "

    I'm not sure one can be sure of that until we get to the end of Mueller's investigation, we don't know what we don't know?

    • “I’m not sure one can be sure of that until we get to the end of Mueller’s investigation, we don’t know what we don’t know?”

      I’m not sure Meuller is looking at what impact the Russians had on the election but on whether the Trump campaign and transition were involved in what they were up to, whether it was effective or not.

  18. Mueller's only concern about the Russian's is as supporting evidence to convict Trump for obstruction of justice. Trump was feeling his oats and a little too confident in his new found presidential authority when he gave Comey the boot thinking he could put any illegal dealings with the Russians behind him. And that's why Mueller is in place.

    To my mind the number one reason why Trump won the election was because  of a major moral failing on the part of the American people. They might have convinced themselves that other consideration were at play, but had they seriously looked at who Trump is and judged him as they would judge any person who came into their life where a relationship of truth and honesty would be established.

    It was clear as a bell that Trump was, and is, a pathological liar, a racist, a misogynist, and a complete fraud. There was nothing redeeming in his character, and yet, people were so frustrated and angry with the political machine that they didn't care to look at the most important quality required for leadership.

     The story of Trump has been told over two thousand years ago according to scripture. Maybe the names and circumstances have changed from the original story, but the underlining fact that not listening to the proper voice can bring destruction upon a nation. Of course America will survive Trump…but at what cost? I never expected to see the day where the President of the United States can blatantly lie and we are all powerless to put an end to it. We need to be outraged.

     Now Trump is reinvigorating his birther claims and also claiming that the Access Hollywood tape is doctored. The craziness is out of control. Trump is a sick person.


  19. Swami, one of the things you might not be thinking about is Fox News and the rest of the rightwing media.

    That he's a pathological liar? "He's just campaigning, and really, he's trolling the opposition". That he's a misogynist? "Well, it's him, or the criminal Hillary Clinton, who is a criminal and should be locked up, because she's a criminal – people who did a tenth of what she did were put in jail, and yet she's still free!" ("I'm sorry, I don't understand – a tenth of *what*, exactly?" "Her criminal behavior, of course!")

    Now, I will grant you that he's a  complete fraud. That is the part that most confounds me. The military like him – but he's just like the full-of-himself, raw recruit, who needs desperately to be taken down several pegs by the drill instructor, or needs to be booted out before he hurts someone. Ordinary people like him – but who doesn't know that kind of braggart, the kind who can do everything better? (Okay: people with good taste in friends and acquaintances might not know someone like that.) Who puts said braggart in charge of something important?

    What really scares the ever-living-HELL out of me is that the FBI had its rebellion over her. They are law enforcement. They are supposed to be able to realize that this is all BS. And they're supposed to be able to put things aside. I don't know which is scarier: that they hated her so much that they wanted to go on a fishing expedition, or that they were convinced by right-wing propaganda that she was engaged in massive criminal activity, and skating each time.

    What scares me a bit more is how the press treats this as, you know… sure, Reagan-Bush engaged in highly illegal activity, and *they* were charged with crimes, and Bill Clinton had a consensual relationship, tried to hide it in a nuisance lawsuit to avoid a perjury trap, and *he* was charged with crimes; now his wife, who must be a bad person because so many people hate her, was having criminal charges pushed; and now they're investigating Trump who is clearly engaged in highly illegal activity, so, really, when you get right down to it, *both sides are the same*. Because chasing down actual criminal activity is really just as partisan as trumped up charges created by clearly partisan investigations.

    But they aren't. Think about this. Repubs had Nixon. Then Reagan; then George W (if lying the nation into war isn't a crime, there's something wrong with criminology…); then Trump. Since the 19-flippin'70s, they haven't had a President who hasn't been engaged in clearly, obviously, unquestionably, illegal activity.

    Something about our nation isn't healthy.

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