Clinton strategist Mark Penn: Russian ads didn't affect election

  • 19 October 2017
  • NormanL
Democrat Penn: Russian ads didn't affect election

As the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election continues, the focus now is on Facebook ads targeted in key states. Those ads, it is said, helped tip the election to Donald Trump -- ads that were paid for by Russian operatives close to the Putin regime. 

It makes for a mildly interesting spy story. But writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mark Penn, a campaign strategist for both Bill and Hillary Clinton, says pinning Hillary's defeat on social media ads is nonsense:

Americans worried about Russia’s influence in the 2016 election have seized on a handful of Facebook ads—as though there weren’t also three 90-minute debates, two televised party conventions, and $2.4 billion spent on last year’s campaign. The danger is that bending facts to fit the Russia story line may nudge Washington into needlessly and recklessly regulating the internet and curtailing basic freedoms.

How quickly we forgot the billions spent on all that other stuff. But Penn is just getting warmed up:

After an extensive review, Facebook has identified $100,000 of ads that came from accounts associated with Russia. Assume for the sake of argument that Vladimir Putin personally authorized this expenditure. Given its divisive nature, the campaign could be dubbed “From Russia, With Hate”—except it would make for a disappointing James Bond movie.

Analyzing the pattern of expenditures, and doing some back-of-the-envelope math, it’s clear this was no devilishly effective plot. Facebook says 56% of the ads ran after the election, reducing the tally that could have influenced the result to about $44,000. It also turns out the ads were not confined to swing states but also shown in places like New York, California and Texas. Supposing half the ads went to swing states brings the total down to $22,000.

Facebook also counted ads as early as June 2015. Assuming they were evenly spread and we want only those that ran the year of the election, that knocks it down to $13,000. Most of the ads did not solicit support for a candidate and carried messages on issues like racism, immigration and guns. The actual electioneering then amounts to about $6,500.

Now look at the bigger picture. Every day, Americans see hundreds of ads on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines, on billboards and smartphones. North Americans post to Facebook something like a billion times a day, and during the election many of those messages were about politics. Facebook typically runs about $40 million worth of advertising a day in North America.

Then consider the scale of American presidential elections. Hillary Clinton’s total campaign budget, including associated committees, was $1.4 billion. Mr. Trump and his allies had about $1 billion. Even a full $100,000 of Russian ads would have erased just 0.025% of Hillary’s financial advantage. In the last week of the campaign alone, Mrs. Clinton’s super PAC dumped $6 million in ads into Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

I have 40 years of experience in politics, and this Russian ad buy, mostly after the election anyway, simply does not add up to a carefully targeted campaign to move voters. It takes tens of millions of dollars to deliver meaningful messages to the contested portion of the electorate. Converting someone who voted for the other party last time is an enormously difficult task. Swing voters in states like Ohio or Florida are typically barraged with 50% or more of a campaign’s budget. Try watching TV in those states the week before an election and you will see how jammed the airwaves are.

While there will be quibbles over Penn's math, his point is largely true. There was an avalanche of money spent on the 2016 campaign. The Russians likely tried to meddle here and there. But if Penn in correct, their efforts were so small, so poorly targeted, and so badly timed they were utterly irrelevant.

That's not to say we shouldn't be wary of foreign governments -- friend or foe -- seeking to influence our elections. But we should also not waste time chasing excuses -- on the taxpayer's dime -- when our candidate loses.