Foreign Interference in Presidential Elections: A Study of Public Opinion

Jason Grant

“Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence…the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government…”

-George Washington, Farewell Address 1796

Does foreign interference in US elections matter to voters?

In 2016, Russian intelligence was able to hack the Democratic National Committee and were active on social media, helping to spread pro-Trump propaganda. In the aftermath, multiple US intelligence agencies confirmed interference, and the Senate released a comprehensive intelligence report in 2020, yet, partisan divides over its severity seemed to suggest that there was an indifference to foreign influence, so long as the result goes their way. Now, with increased usage of the internet for campaign advertising, and the allowance of unlimited campaign funds, America still appears vulnerable to interference, and given its ambiguous nature, public opinion on the issue remains unclear. In addition to analyzing prior instances of interference which have been narrowed down into three categories-endorsement of a candidate through media, providing campaign funds, and providing verbal endorsements- the primary objective of this study is to gather polling data in the lead up to the 2020 Presidential election regarding public opinion on election security. The goals of this research are to identify which methods of foreign interference are most prevalent, and to gauge bipartisan views concerning potential foreign intervention in the future. My research indicates that foreign interference is not the primary concern to election security, and, due to its ambiguity and the intentional spread of misinformation, the result of interference is a further polarized American electorate.

Russian Interference in the 2016 Election and Partisan Divides

The 2016 presidential election remains infamous, not only due to the election of Donald Trump, a highly polarizing figure, but also because election interference from foreign adversaries was confirmed by multiple intelligence agencies (US Senate 2020). Russian intelligence officials were able to influence the election in a number of ways, including through hacking of multiple state’s democrat committees, giving them access to potentially millions of voter registration records, and spreading pro-Trump propaganda on social media (US Senate 2020). Election interference has been seen before, but changes in information technology and the way elections are carried out in the 21st century have allowed adversaries to ambitiously attempt to influence elections, without fear of military retaliation against them as public opinion favors economic sanctions (Tomz et al. 2019). Obama did eject 35 Russian diplomats in response, but there was bipartisan criticism on both sides for being a delayed, indecisive response ( Tomz et al 2020) (Us Senate 2020).

In 2016, Illinois first reported hacking of their Democratic voter registration database to the Department of Homeland security (US Senate 2020). The state noticed foreign IP addresses that triggered a flash warning. However, due to intellectual property laws, the states are required to self report instances of foreign IP addresses found to have access to their databases. Meaning that instances of hacking were not able to be done at a national level. Since states determine for election law for themselves, choosing specifically how their primaries, registration, and voting take place, the national defense against hacking of individual states is limited. In the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian interference in 2016, the cybersecurity coordinator who was a special adviser to the president admitted, “…over the course of August of 2016 that we were seeing the Russians probe a whole bunch of different state election infrastructure, voter registration databases, and other related infrastructure on a regular basis,” (US Senate 2020). 

Several studies conducted after the 2016 election yield similar results, that interference increases the public’s distrust of democracy and the electoral process. While interference is obviously not encouraged by the majority of the electorate, a large cohort of voters are apathetic to interference if it helps their candidate win the election, with polls conducted in 2019 indicate that Republican voters were more willing to accept foreign intervention that helpes their candidate(Tomz et al. 2019). “Partisan differences were smaller when the country carried out operations such as spreading lies about candidates or hacking into voting machines, but partisan bias persisted even then. Thus, if a foreign country took the Democratic side in a future election, the political reaction might be the reverse of 2016, with Republicans denouncing and Democrats condoning the foreign interference.” (Tomz et al. 2019)  Essentially, partisanship is determinant of opinion on interference, which appears to give more incentive to nations such as Russia to interfere, as they can escalate hyper partisanship. 

Also, it must be noted that President Trumps’ rhetoric has clearly had a impact on public perception about elections and especially election interference. Although Trump won the 2016 election, he stipulated that he might not accept the results of the election if he were to lose, a claim he repeated in the 2020 cycle. “The losers prefer to view their candidate’s or party’s poor showing as a byproduct of malfeasance or administrative error than as a reflection of a candidate’s ineptitude or the unpopularity of his platform. Some thus become more convinced post-election that electoral institutions and processes are unfair or corrupt” (Levy 2020). In May of 2017 President Trump administered the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, to investigate his claims of voter fraud. The commission was disbanded in 2018 after finding almost no evidence to support his claims, although Trump claimed that it disbanded because some states refused to report their data, (Levy 2020) further cementing in some minds that voter fraud is a systemic issue. It is a primary objective to discover whether foreign interference is viewed as an immediate threat to voters in the 2020 election.

Method: Public Opinion on Interference and 2020 Election Security

In addition to obtaining qualitative data determining methods of intervention and prior instances of it, I have gathered three Muhlenberg College public opinion polls ranging from February to October 2020 gauging perceptions of potential fears about the threats to the validity of the 2020 election from Pennsylvania voters, a key battleground state that has gone back and forth between the Democratic and Republican candidates the last two elections, making Pennsylvannia voters a relevant example of the electorate. It is also the state most likely to decide the election according to fivethirtyeight. The polls were conducted by Muhlenberg’s institute of public opinion, using samples of 420 randomized eligible Pennsylvania voters.

After grouping and comparing these samples, I will compare to national polls from Pew Research Center, gauging public opinion about whether they expect foreign interference in 2020. As Pennsylvania is a swing state that went for Trump in 2016, it will be interesting to see if Muhlenberg polls will align with national polls or be affected by partisan opinions or Trump’s rhetoric of voter fraud.

Instances of Prior Interference

Campaign funding is a method hard to trace, especially since campaign funds can be funneled through PACs in recent years. However, I have identified two clear occurrences of it. In 1996, the FBI uncovered attempts by the Chinese government to send funds to the Democratic National Committee (Woodward et al 1997). Both parties denied the allegations, however. The other occurrence was in 2016, when President Trump’s campaign manager admitted in 2018 to accepting $60 million from Pro Russian and Ukrainian groups. 

Instances of manipulation through the media are the most common. In the 1940 election, the Nazis attempted to slander Franklin D. Roosevelt  in the press, using a few US newspapers to paint Roosevelt as a warmonger (Levin 2016). Foreign minister of Nazi affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop hoped releasing classified Polish documents would have this effect. Roosevelt still won the election comfortably.  In 1984 at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union took ‘active measures’ against Reagan’s reelection, which are propaganda measures taken to influence the outcome of events. (Osnos et al. 2017). Again, the interference did not sway the election, as Reagan won 49 of 50 states. In 2012, it was discovered that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had ads put out in support of Mitt Romney, and that Israel was denied some aid from the Obama administration after their victory, although Netanyahu has denied this (Ravid 2019). Along with these 3 instances of interference, the 2016 election saw 3 more attempts at media manipulation. First, the Russians intelligence hacked the DNC and leaked their documents to Wikileaks (Ackerman et al. 2016). Trump confidant Roger Stone also allegedly had meetings with Israeli officials who promised ‘critical intel’ against Hillary Clinton (Times of Israel 2020). Lastly, in early 2017, British Intelligence passed on information to the US in which they were ‘highly confident’ that Vladimir Putin had ordered a campaign that sought to, “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” (New York Times 2017).

Figure 1 (Woodward et al 1997), (Times of Israel 2020), (Osnos et al. 2017), (Ravid 2019)

Interference is acknowledged as a threat, but voter fraud was the primary concern in 2020

The findings indicate that other nations have long been attempting to influence US elections, mainly through the popular mediums distributing propaganda, as 60% of interference attempts since 1940 have been media related. However, it is clear that the new methods of interference in the 2016 election, primarily internet based, present new challenges than previous elections. The internet allows for methods of election interference unprecedented in history, and special care needs to be taken to ensure the security and privacy of voter information, as the Senate Intelligence Report acknowledges as well, “Russian activities demand renewed attention to vulnerabilities in U.S. voting infrastructure. In 2016, cybersecurity for electoral infrastructure at the state and local level was sorely lacking; for example, voter registration databases were not as secure as they could have been,” (US Senate 2020).   

In analyzing the Muhlenberg polls, Pennsylvania voters deemed voter fraud, overwhelmingly, as the biggest threat to the validity of the election. This is undoubtedly attributed to President Trump’s unrelenting rhetoric regarding unsubstantiated voter fraud. Throughout the lead up to the 2020 election, President Trump claimed Mail-in ballots were associated with voter fraud, which have skewed the results. Foreign interference, represented in orange, dwindled in concern as the election neared, from 17% in February who thought it was a primary concern, to just 8% by October. Fear of voter fraud steadily increased throughout the year, further cementing the idea of partisan discontent with elections that do not appear to go in their favor.

However, if we turn the attention to the Pew Research polls, American voters nationally agree that foreign interference in 2020 is likely. By August, 62% of Republicans, 88% of Democrats, and 75% overall said they felt foreign interference was at least somewhat likely. Yet, when given multiple options about the biggest threats to election security, Pennsylvania voters, still believed voter suppression and voter fraud were more worrying issues. In the lead up to the 2020 election, domestic issues, at least in the key swing state of Pennsylvania, took precedence over foreign influence.

Foreign Interference is ambiguous and unseen, making it hard to identify and renounce

The findings indicate that the US electorate has been misguided, believing that domestic intervention is a greater threat to election security than foreign adversaries, who have been proven to do so in the past. Foreign nations, or more specifically adversaries such as Russia, are intending to sow doubt in our elections, as some previous studies affirm, but furthermore, they generally want America in a state of hyper-polarization. To prevent cyber attacks and hacking, politicians and the electorate need to be able to agree that actions need to be taken to prevent them. Voters in the 2020 election were much more concerned with voter fraud, even though there is little evidence of it, while multiple intelligence agencies have confirmed Russian interference in 2016. The divisiveness of the American public has been increasing in recent decades and cannot be attributed solely to President Trump, but he has accelerated this polarization and extended it onto issues of national security. Still, as the Pew Research Center poll illustrated, Americans agreed that foreign interference in 2020 was a likely prospect, so there is clearly acknowledgment, yet interference can come in many forms, and therefore maintains a largely ambiguous nature.

Modern day interference seems to be a modern day guerrilla warfare tactic: create doubt in the strength of American institutions. Russian intelligence was able to achieve this through hacking, but also, what may be more concerning, is the Senate’s assessment of how they engaged in information control methods via social media. “The Kremlin has honed and refined its social media disinformation tactics over the last decade. Lessons learned through information warfare campaigns directed both internally and at the populations of regional neighbors provided Moscow valuable insights into how information and social media could be most effectively used against the West,” (US Senate 2020).

As internet use and technology evolves, it will likely be harder to track and prevent propaganda and hacking from foreign adversaries. An inability to agree on the immediate threats to our elections were undoubtedly perpetuated by President Trump’s rhetoric of voter fraud. Therefore, it seems that if an adversary would interfere on the side of one candidate, a candidate who is distrustful of his own government is favorable to their goals. Lack of bipartisanship on this issue, and the identify and respond effectively to election interference appears to be a blockade to preventing it. Like any other policy, public opinion on the issue must be high for politicians to address the issue, and as of now, it does not appear that foreign interference is of great concern. As the nation’s leaders repeatedly discount the integrity and fairness of elections, American voters are flooded with different facts and information, making it challenging to identify the most immediate threats to election security.


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