One of my least favorite questions is: “Did Russian interference cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election?” The question is newly relevant because of special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians on Friday on charges that they used a variety of shady techniques to discourage people from voting for Clinton and encourage them to vote for Donald Trump. That doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to answer, however. But here are my high-level thoughts in light of the indictment. (For more detail on these, listen to our emergency politics podcast.)
1. Russian interference is hard to measure because it wasn’t a discrete event.
You know what probably did cost Clinton the election? The letter that former FBI Director James Comey sent to Congress on Oct. 28, 2016, and the subsequent media firestorm over it. The impact is relatively easy to measure because it was the biggest news event in the final two weeks of the campaign, and we can compare polls conducted just before the Comey letter to the ones conducted just after it.1
Russian interference isn’t like that. By contrast, the indictment (and previous reporting on the subject) suggests that the interference campaign had been underway for years (since at least 2014) and gradually evolved from a more general-purpose trolling operation into something that sought to undermine Clinton while promoting Trump (and to a lesser degree, Bernie Sanders). To the extent it mattered, it would have blended into the background and had a cumulative effect over the entirety of the campaign.
2. The magnitude of the interference revealed so far is not trivial but is still fairly modest as compared with the operations of the Clinton and Trump campaigns.
The indictment alleges that an organization called the Internet Research Agency had a monthly budget of approximately $1.25 million toward interference efforts by September 2016 and that it employed “hundreds of individuals for its online operation.” This is a fairly significant magnitude — much larger than the paltry sums that Russian operatives had previously been revealed to spend on Facebook advertising.
Nonetheless, it’s small as compared with the campaigns. The Clinton campaign and Clinton-backing super PACs spent a combined $1.2 billion over the course of the campaign. The Trump campaign and pro-Trump super PACs spent $617 million overall.
In terms of headcounts rather than budgets, the gap isn’t quite so dramatic. The “hundreds” of people working for the Internet Research Agency compare with 4,200 paid Clinton staffers2 and 880 paid Trump staffers.3 Russian per-capita GDP is estimated at around $10,000 U.S. dollars — about one-sixth of what it is in the U.S. — so a $1.25 million monthly budget potentially goes a lot farther there than it does here. The Russian efforts were on the small side as compared with the massive magnitudes of the campaigns, but not so small that you’d consider them a rounding error.
3. Thematically, the Russian interference tactics were consistent with the reasons Clinton lost.
How did Trump win? Or more to the point, how did Trump win given that he only had a 38 percent favorability rating among people who voted on Election Day? The answer is partly the Electoral College, of course. But it’s also that Clinton was really, really unpopular herself — almost as unpopular as Trump — with a favorability rating of just 43 percent among Election Day voters. Also, the substantial number of voters who disliked both Clinton and Trump went to Trump by a 17-point margin. Voters really weren’t willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt.
That’s largely because Clinton was viewed as dishonest and untrustworthy, exactly the sort of message that the Russian campaign (which used hashtags such as #Hillary4Prison) was trying to cultivate. Trump, of course, was trying to cultivate this message too. Media coverage often struck the same themes. And voters sometimes heard variations on this theme from Sanders and his supporters in the more contentious moments of the Democratic primaries. Was some of this Clinton’s fault? Yep, of course. Would Clinton still have been “Crooked Hillary” even without the Russians? Almost certainly. But the Russians were at least adding fuel to the right fire — the one that wound up consuming Clinton’s campaign.
The indictment also alleges that the Russian conspirators sought to suppress African-American turnout. A decline in black turnout was an important — perhaps even decisive — factor in Clinton’s defeat, although it may have been inevitable given that Barack Obama, the first African-American president, had been on the ballot in 2012.
Overall, then, my view on the effects of Russian interference is fairly agnostic. I tend to focus more on factors — such as Clinton’s email scandal or the Comey letter (and the media’s handling of those stories) — that had easier-to-prove effects. The hacked emails from the Clinton campaign and the DNC (which may or may not have had anything to do with the Russians) potentially also were more influential than the Russian efforts detailed in Friday’s indictments. Clinton’s Electoral College strategy didn’t have as much of an effect as some people assume — but it was pretty stupid all the same and is certainly worth mentioning.
But if it’s hard to prove anything about Russian interference, it’s equally hard to disprove anything: The interference campaign could easily have had chronic, insidious effects that could be mistaken for background noise but which in the aggregate were enough to swing the election by 0.8 percentage points toward Trump — not a high hurdle to clear because 0.8 points isn’t much at all.
Perhaps there are more clever methodologies that one could undertake. For instance, if we knew which states the efforts were concentrated in, we might be able to make a few additional inferences. Maybe some of that information will come to light as the result of Mueller’s probe and further investigative reporting. For the time being, however, we’re still somewhat in the dark.