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Opinion: With Russia Claims, Clapper Crosses a Line

No clear evidence Moscow influenced outcome of 2016 election

James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, should not be using his stature to further inflame a divided country with unsubstantiated claims about our electoral process, Winston writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)
James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, should not be using his stature to further inflame a divided country with unsubstantiated claims about our electoral process, Winston writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)

For those who work in the partisan fields of electoral politics, there is nothing harder than losing. Even for those whose only real interaction with partisan politics is the first Tuesday in November every two or four years, the loss of an election or a chosen candidate can be difficult to accept. Emotions are raw and often morph into misplaced rationalization or even the rejection of reality.

As a political strategist, I believe it’s critically important that both winners and losers understand the political outcomes of elections and the dynamics that drove them. It’s a process that both sides need to work through in order to understand voters and what they want, and then, with that understanding, define the next steps to move forward.

Unfortunately for their party and the country, many Democrats still refuse — almost 19 months after Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss — to accept the result of the 2016 election.

But this past week, we have seen these efforts to undermine the integrity of that result cross a red line — our more than 200-year-old tradition of peacefully transferring power from one presidency to the next. A tradition that normally protects our postelection process and confers legitimacy on a newly elected president.

Change of mind

James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, claimed the Russians didn’t just meddle in U.S. politics, but actually tipped the election to Donald Trump. Our top intelligence officials are given extraordinary powers to keep the country safe, but with that power comes an obligation to use it responsibly, even in private life.

Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections

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Yet Clapper, discussing his new book with Judy Woodruff (and others), said, “As a private citizen, it’s what I would call my informed opinion that, given the massive effort the Russians made, and the number of citizens that they touched, and the variety and multi-dimensional aspects of what they did to influence opinion … and given the fact that it turned on less than 80,000 votes in three states, to me it exceeds logic and credulity that they didn’t affect the election. And it’s my belief they actually turned it.”

Although in interviews in 2017, Mr. Clapper said the intelligence community could not “make a call” whether or not Russian meddling had changed the election results, he now writes, “Of course, the Russian efforts affected the outcome. Surprising even themselves, they swung the election to a Trump win.”

In a May 25 CNN interview, Clapper, now a paid commentator for the network, was asked by Erin Burnett for evidence of his claims in the book that Russia swayed the election.

Responding, he admitted, “The intelligence community did not make any attempt to assess the impact on voter decisions or the outcome of the election. It has neither the authority, the capability, or the resources.”

And there lies the underlying problem for those still trying to question the results of the last election or even for those honestly trying to understand what happened. They don’t have the “capability or the resources” to make that kind of determination because the data on political online advertising is still in its infancy.

A 2014 study of the effect of online ads on electoral behavior, done by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University, found that they had “little effect on their viewers’ recognition or evaluation of the advertising candidate.”

“Voters randomly exposed to the ads were in some cases more likely to recall them but no more likely to recognize or positively evaluate the candidates they depicted.” Good to know, but we need a lot more data to make any kind of definitive conclusion. There are just too many unanswered questions.

For example, did a Russian online ad, “Backing the Badge,” popping up on Facebook or a Bernie Sanders gay rights ad on Google or Instagram actually influence voter decisions or were they designed to simply create division? And did they work?

From a regulatory perspective, is an online ad the equivalent of a bumper sticker or should it be seen in the same context as a television ad requiring disclosure? Do either have any real impact in the fragmented media world in which campaigns must operate today?

When it comes to online ads, is the real culprit digital microtargeting that makes monitoring difficult? Or is this simply a new kind of technology that society has to learn how to incorporate into its political discourse?

What we do know is that the Russians created 3,517 online ads on Facebook with more than half (55 percent) focused on race, according to USA Today. Coming in second were ads focused on crime/policing; Immigration was third. Obviously, further dividing the electorate was their key strategic objective.

In a February article for The Atlantic, “Russia’s Troll Operation Wasn’t All That Sophisticated,” Alexis Madrigal references the Mueller investigation indictments of 13 Russian Internet Research Agency employees. He writes that “while a small team in St. Petersburg ran a successful audience-development campaign mostly on behalf of Trump, that campaign was neither targeted nor sizable enough to change the election’s result.”

He cites The Atlantic’s coverage of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing on the subject last November, which revealed that “the total amount spent targeting Wisconsin was a mere $1,979; all but $54 spent before the primary, and none of the ads even mentioned Trump. The spending in Michigan and Pennsylvania was even smaller.”

There are plenty of data trackers out there following your every digital move, but whether online political ads really affect vote behavior remains to be seen. One takeaway I think we can glean from this election is the need for regulatory consistency across our political advertising platforms to help ensure transparency. We also need a lot more research on the impact of online political advertising.

No proof

So, is Clapper right? Did the Russians actually change the outcome of the election? Given postelection findings from private and public polls, online ad research done to date, and political ad data provided by leading internet social media companies to Congress, the answer is that there is no clear proof to support that claim.

Did online issue ads, some by Russians and some by U.S. groups on both sides, stoke more discord with an already divided electorate? Probably, but even here we have little data to evaluate the impact of online political ads versus, for example, the effects on voter behavior of political content posted by friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter.

James Clapper is an acknowledged intelligence expert on spycraft, a person of stature who can provide thoughtful analysis about what he knows best. But what he should not do is use that stature to further inflame a divided country with unsubstantiated claims that undermine the legitimacy of our democratic electoral system.

We need to understand the role that foreign interference may have played, but continuing to question the outcome without offering clear proof only undermines the electorate’s confidence in the political process.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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