Messaging on the Russia Investigation: Findings from New Battleground Survey and Focus Groups 

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Thursday, August 10th, 2017

By Jeremy D. Rosner and Anna Greenberg


Results from a new survey and focus groups conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner provide guidance for all who are addressing the scandal enveloping the Trump administration regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. The research shows voters in 2018 battleground congressional districts want to protect the investigations into the scandal; they oppose any move by President Trump to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller; and they reject the idea of Trump pardoning either himself or his top aides and family members. Although the Russia scandal is not the top concern, the research shows this issue is motivating to potential Democratic voters.

Even with the Russia investigation in its early days and the election more than a year off, Democrats already enjoy a notable enthusiasm edge in these battleground districts. Across the 99 districts sampled, 61% of self-identified Democratic voters say they are extremely enthusiastic about voting for Congress in 2018 (10, on a 0-10 scale), compared to only 48% of self-identified Republicans. Notably, the Democratic generic vote and the party’s enthusiasm edge over Republicans both rise even after a prolonged and balanced discussion of the Russia investigation.

The research findings are especially notable since both the survey and focus groups are based only on voters in battleground House districts – with 79 of the 99 districts sampled in the survey now represented by Republican House members. That means the survey results lean more Republican than a full nationwide survey, and provide guidance on how to communicate this issue in some of the toughest and most competitive settings.

Overall, two messages dominate across the potential Democratic electorate; the first is particularly effective with broad audiences, while the second is most effective with Democratic audiences, including the Democratic base (below, we discuss why these messages work and the building blocks for effective messaging):

The research highlights 10 key points that inform why these two messages have power, and how Democrats and progressives should structure their messages on this set of issues:

We need to
protect the investigation
into Russian interference in our
2016 election so we can get to the bottom of this. Trump is threatening to
fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and already discussing pardons for
himself, his family, and aides. We need to ensure we get the facts and hold
people accountable if they broke the law.”

“We need to send a message to Trump: stop
the attacks on our health care, our environment, and our democracy.
Democrats have a plan to strengthen Obamacare rather than repeal it; combat
global warming rather than deny it; and ensure all the facts come out about
Russia’s election hack, rather than letting it be swept under the rug.”

1. Stress the need to protect the investigation. Voters want the facts behind this scandal to come out, and strongly reject moves by Trump to cut off the investigation or potential prosecutions. By a two-to-one margin, 60-29%, survey respondents say they would disapprove if President Trump and his team fire Special Counsel Mueller in the coming weeks; this includes 44% who strongly disapprove. Even in the 79 districts that are now Republican-held, the margin is essentially the same, 59-30%. If he were fired, by a 67-26% majority, they would support Congress naming a Special Prosecutor in his place.

2. Do not invoke impeachment. Most voters feel it is premature to talk about impeachment. Voters feel less favorable about a message when it includes a call for Trump’s impeachment –that is equally true among Democratic voters, and even base Democrats. As noted below, however, findings by Mueller against Trump and his team could quickly generate majority support for impeachment.

3.  Draw a line against pardons. An overwhelming 86-10% majority says Trump should not be allowed to pardon himself from criminal prosecution – a possibility the President and his team reportedly examined. Even among self-identified Republicans, an overwhelming 74-19% majority objects to the idea of the President pardoning himself. Respondents also oppose the President pardoning his aides and family members by a strong 69-27% margin.

4. Note that Russian hackers attacked voting systems in 39 states. This emerges as the single most troubling fact from the scandal so far, and strikes at the heart of people’s perceptions of the democratic system. As a man in one of the focus groups says, “If we lose track of our votes we’re pretty much screwed.”

5. Call out the Russia-related lies by the Trump team. Voters are also irate about Trump’s aides and family repeatedly lying about their many interactions with various Russians. Told about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer, a woman in the focus groups asks, “If they lied about this one incident what else are they lying about?…What were they covering up?”

6. Stress the national security implications. Voters – particularly swing voters – are sensitive to the scandal’s national security implications; 74% in the survey expect Russia and other countries to try to interfere in future US elections; many worry that next time it could be North Korea.

7. Advocate for a bipartisan commission. A 64-33% majority favors creating an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the Russia scandal. Many in the focus groups are drawn to the idea that such a commission would include members who come from outside of Congress, and would have a responsibility to report to the public at large. If Trump were to fire Mueller, support for such a commission rises even higher, to a 72-22% majority.

8.  Advocate for a law against foreign campaign meddling. There is also strong 66-26% support for enactment of a new law to bar foreign governments or entities from interfering in US campaigns. Many focus group participants are stunned that such a law does not already exist.

9. Stress the need for bipartisan action. Focus group participants respond strongly when Democrats say both political parties should unite on this issue, since Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election threatens the interests of the country as a whole.

10. Be aware that new events may significantly change the landscape. This is a fluid issue, and voters show a strong inclination to shift their position as new facts emerge. Presented with a hypothetical that Mueller finds members of Trump’s team illegally worked with the Russians to undermine the 2016 elections, and that Trump personally was involved, a 62-34% majority declare their support for Trump’s impeachment. This is one of many indications that new developments in this set of issues are likely to create significant changes in the messaging terrain.

The survey results are based on 1,000 telephone interviews with likely 2018 voters in the country’s 99 most competitive congressional battleground districts (79 currently Republican held; 20 Democratic held), conducted July 27 to August 1, 2017. Half of the interviews were conducted by landline, and half by cell phone. The results are subject to a margin of error of +/- 3.1%. In addition to the survey, the research included six focus groups in battleground districts, conducted July 18 to July 20, 2017, in Orlando, Cincinnati, and Las Vegas. The survey and focus groups were designed and conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and funded by a coalition including: American Bridge; End Citizens United; MoveOn; and Stand Up America.


Click here to view the original memo.