Lost amidst the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, video of president Trump throwing paper towels at Puerto Rican hurricane victims, and news that Rex Tillerson called Trump a “fucking moron,” has been some very interesting revelations about Russian influence on the 2016 election. Specifically, that Russian-linked anti-Hillary Clinton Facebook ads targeted Wisconsin and Michigan, which just happen to be the two states where Trump pulled by far his biggest upsets on his improbable road to victory.
There are at least two important questions raised by this story. One, did the Russians “collude” with the Trump campaign in this rather sophisticated endeavor? Two, did this effort impact the results in those two states?
I will leave the first question for another time when we will presumably have more solid information. Here, I would like to take a crack at the second issue of whether it really mattered beyond the obvious theoretical problems a winning presidential campaign getting help from a foreign adversary would cause.
First, let’s stipulate that what was reported this week is only a portion of the Russian efforts on social media to help Trump’s campaign. For instance, I have always been EXTREMELY suspicious of the anti-Hillary “fake news” campaign created, supposedly organically, by teenagers in Macedonia, which the news media seemed mostly amused by when it mattered. It certainly appears that Trump effectively had a secret “Super PAC,” which had the resources of a foreign power, but with zero blowback towards Trump for the lies/tactics they were using.
So, was there anything “weird” about the results in Wisconsin and Michigan which might lead to a conclusion that something unusual was having an under-the-radar impact? The answer, quite clearly, is yes.
Let’s first take a look at the results of these two states from 2012, since that is the data where the electorate most closely resembled the voters who were eligible/alive in 2016. Obviously the comparison is not perfect because Barack Obama was an incumbent president who is black, and Mitt Romney did not have the same “blue collar” appeal as Donald Trump.
However, there are other factors which mitigate the differences in the two match ups, such as Hillary being a woman, and Romney’s father having once been the governor of Michigan. Also, Trump performed exceedingly poorly in the Wisconsin primary.
Here is the 2012 breakdown:
2012 Final Polling in Michigan: The final “Real Clear Politics” average had Obama at 49.5% and Romney at 45.5%. With Obama leading by 4 points, it was considered to be a near lock that he would win the state.
2012 Final Result in Michigan: Obama ended up winning big, 54.2% to 44.7%. Obama got 2.564 million votes.
2012 Final Polling in Wisconsin: The final “RCP” average had Obama at 50.4% and Romney at 46.2%. That 4.2% margin gave Romney very little hope of pulling the upset.
2012 Final Result in Wisconsin: Obama ended up crushing Romney 54.8-45.9%. Obama got 1.621 million votes.
And here is how these two states went down in 2016:
2016 Final Polling in Michigan: Clinton led Trump 47-43.4%. This 3.6% lead, which was nearly identical to Obama’s pre-election advantage in 2012, was probably overestimated by the Clinton campaign because it was theoretically “skewed” by one, then unknown, poll showing Trump up by 2 points. Historically, despite Clinton having lost the Michigan primary, these numbers would have been a very strong indication that Trump could not win the state.
2016: Final Result in Michigan: Trump won an incredibly close race, 47.5-47.3%, beating Clinton by less than 11,000 votes. Clinton got only 2.269 million votes, almost 300,000 fewer than Obama earned four years earlier, which is a staggeringly large number for a medium-sized state. If just 4% of those “missing” Obama voters had decided to show up for her, she wins Michigan.
2016 Final Polling in Wisconsin: Clinton led Trump 46.8-40.3%. This 6.5 point margin, combined with Trump’s extremely low percentage of the vote and his poor primary performance there, made this state an absolute lock for Clinton, at least on paper. I know of no state in modern presidential elections where you could have made a stronger argument that the person who ended winning had no legitimate chance.
2016 Final Result in Wisconsin: Trump somehow pulled the massive upset, 47.2-46.5%, winning by less than 23,000 votes. Clinton got only 1.383 million votes, which is about a quarter of a million voters fewer than what Obama received in this fairly small state. If just 10% of those “missing” Obama voters had decided to show up for her, she wins Wisconsin.
For context, two other “rust belt” states, Pennsylvania and Ohio, also produced rather amazing results. In Pennsylvania, Trump won by 44,000 votes, vastly outperforming Romney’s total (a rarity for Trump) and coming within 20,000 votes of what Obama received in 2012. In Ohio, Hillary shockingly got almost 500,000 fewer votes than Obama, despite having the state’s biggest star, Lebron James, campaigning with her down the stretch.
So, what does all of this mean? Well, it seems clear that something happened in Wisconsin and Michigan which eluded both the Clinton campaign and almost every independent pollster. In Michigan, the black vote clearly didn’t come out strong for Clinton. In Wisconsin, it seems obvious that overconfidence, fostered partly by her not even visiting the state, led to the liberal base there not being energized.
Like any close football game, there are almost always a multitude of reasons why one team won and the other lost. However, given the closeness of these races and how very off the polling data was (when, nationally, the polls were pretty much dead on), it is certainly reasonable to conclude that Russian efforts, much like a late field goal, were in fact a deciding factor. This case is especially persuasive when you consider that Hillary’s problem in these two states, horrendously depressed turnout, was EXACTLY the type of result which the Russian “fake news” campaign appeared designed to create.
Of course, it must be remembered that even if Trump had not received this extra Russian push in these two states, Hillary would still have had to have pulled out Pennsylvania or Florida to have won the presidency. The voting patterns there (where Trump was greatly helped by two GOP incumbent senators who outperformed him) were very different from what we saw in Wisconsin and Michigan.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at email@example.com.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.