Messaging the Russia Scandal

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

This report is based on a nationwide online survey and a set of 4 focus groups, conducted by GQR, and sponsored by Stand Up America and Need to Impeach. The survey fielded June 17-24, 2019, based on 1,700 interviews with registered voters; it included an “oversample” of 500 registered voters in 44 “frontline” congressional districts as defined by the DCCC. On a weighted basis (weighting down the oversample to reflect the relative population of the 44 districts), the sample is equivalent to 1,200 nationwide interviews. The focus groups, conducted June 4-5 included: two groups among Independents in Harrisburg, PA; and two groups among Democratic voters in Las Vegas, NV. Each group was homogenous by age and gender. The analysis refers to an earlier online survey on these issues, based on interviews with 1,000 registered voters, conducted by GQR January 29 – February 3, 2018, sponsored by Stand Up America.

Public perceptions of the Trump-Russia scandal and the Mueller report are now deeply muddied. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s dense and lawyerly report, combined with Attorney General William Barr’s misleading framing of that report, have left much of the public confused about the investigation’s results and conclusions. The White House has created a clearer narrative – “no collusion!” – than have those who are seeking more information and greater accountability. New qualitative and quantitative research shows Trump’s critics need to adopt sharper messaging if they hope to counter this clear narrative coming from Trump’s allies.

The good news is that the public has not closed down on these issues; concern remains high. A 71% majority of registered voters say they are following the Russia scandal very or somewhat closely. A 73% majority say Russia did try to interfere in the 2016 election—including 48% who believe it strongly—up 8 points from February 2018. Participants in the focus groups are highly engaged during a two-hour discussion of the issue, and many express surprise when they learn facts about Mueller’s findings.

There is also high trust in Mueller and his report; confidence in his investigation is up 5 points since early 2018, up to 62%. Partly as a result, pro-Trump messages that try to question the neutrality of Mueller’s investigation produce significantly less of a result than other pro-Trump messages on these issues.

The bad news is that Trump and his backers have succeeded in muddying perceptions of Mueller’s conclusions. Some voters blame Mueller and his report. In addition to complaining that the investigation cost too much and took too long, many focus group participants argue Mueller failed to take a clear position. The many redactions add to the sense of obscure conclusions. An Independent man in Harrisburg says about Mueller: “the guy leaves office in a year and a half and we still don’t have a confirmed answer; give us yes or no!” A few focus group participants are aware Mueller was constrained by the Justice Department rule against indicting a sitting President – which they mostly regard as absurd; but participants still fault Mueller for not providing a clearer set of findings. Partly as a result, the research shows that Trump’s message of “no collusion” has penetrated with the public, while voters struggle to identify any clear message coming out of the report that is critical of Trump.

The research points to eight insights that groups and speakers addressing these issues may want to incorporate into their messaging:

  1. Summarize the investigation’s tangible findings of criminal behavior: 37 indictments, 7 guilty pleas or convictions, over 100 secret meetings linked to Russia, 10 instances of obstruction or interference with the investigation. Hard, enumerated facts about the investigations results are powerful and memorable. When focus group participants hear that Mueller’s work yielded in 37 criminal indictments, 7 convictions or guilty pleas, and evidence of over 100 meetings between the Trump team and Russians or WikiLeaks – or when they learn the report detailed 10 instances in which Trump obstructed or sought to interfere with the investigation – many are shocked and ask why this information was not in Mueller’s report.
  2. Arguments about legal process do not resonate or stick. Voters do not respond as strongly to information about Trump’s manipulation of legal and government processes – such as the finding that he tried to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the scope of the investigation. Such episodes lack the clarity and memorability of clear, enumerated results from the investigation.
  3. Stress that the Trump team “lied to investigators.” One aspect of legal process does resonate: voters are highly troubled by statements that Trump pushed members of his team to falsify information relevant to the investigation (such as asking White House Counsel Don McGahn to lie about Trump’s order to fire Mueller), or that his aides lied to investigators. This strikes voters as different from Trump’s own serial prevarications; they do not readily forgive lying within the context of a criminal investigation.
  4. Stress the need for the public to get all the facts. The survey’s best-testing message for Trump critics stresses that “Congress and the American people deserve all the facts,” and calls for releasing the full, un-redacted report. Even many voters who are sympathetic to Trump are frustrated that the full facts have not been released. It helps to describe virtually all aspects of the next steps in this process – whatever those may be – as part of an effort to get all the facts out in the open.
  5. Voters care as much or more about obstruction as about “collusion.” A 55-45% majority rejects the idea that Trump cannot be guilty of obstruction if there is no proof of illegal cooperation with Russia, and this kind of argument from Trump allies yields a weak result in the survey. To the contrary, voters stress that obstruction by itself is a serious federal crime; a focus group participant in Las Vegas says, “It’s major; that’s like organized crime.”
  6. Frame this as voters themselves do: “If I did that, I’d go to jail.” In every focus group, voters spontaneously react to information from the Mueller report with variations on the same idea: that if any of them did these kinds of things, they would go to jail. The reaction partly reflects feelings that powerful leaders are held to a looser standard of justice than average citizens. One Independent woman in Harrisburg, a veteran who voted for Trump, says: “As a military person, I find it so offensive we allowed this to happen; if you did this in the military, you’re court martialed.” A message along these lines is one of the two strongest in the survey, leading nearly two-thirds (63%) to agree: “If an average American tried to deceive investigators, or destroyed evidence, or worked with Russia to affect our elections, they’d go to jail. Trump did all those things; we can’t pretend we have equal justice if Trump is able to do that with no legal consequence.” Advocates should use this idea constantly.
  7. Address the perceived trade-off with other issues. Many voters feel that the Trump-Russia issues are serious but should be put aside so that Congress and other leaders can deal with what they call “our issues,” such as health care. An Independent woman in Harrisburg says she believes Trump acted improperly, but says, “there are so many other things out there… [Members of Congress] are forgetting about social security, and health care, and everything we need to be doing.” Advocates need to stress that Congress can address domestic issues at the same time it pursues accountability on Trump-Russia.
  8. Concise, repeated message. The points above suggest a concise message that advocates can use to both educate and motivate the public on these issues: