It’s no secret that the big stories in Washington are not always seen as big stories outside the Beltway. The new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that President Donald Trump’s performance at last Monday’s Helsinki summit is another example of this. But the poll also suggests that, in talking about the “Russia scandal,” Trump opponents should focus less on Russia and more on the election interference itself.
On three of four questions, the polling breaks down two ways: Partisans support or oppose Trump depending on their political party, and independents are less concerned about the president's performance than furor in Washington and the media would suggest. Clear majorities of Republicans approved of how Trump handled the summit and believe American leadership has "gotten stronger." Democrats said the opposite. And for independents, only 38 percent thought the president went "too far" in supporting Putin, compared with 52 percent who answered "not far enough" or "about right."
Similarly, a third of independent votes approved of Trump's handling of the summit and 20 percent had no opinion. Trump opponents can be slightly relieved that independents didn't side with Republicans. Overall, though, as The Washington Post notes, "The findings indicate that while Trump was judged critically for his summit performance, the event has not at this time proved to be a significant turning point in his presidency." If you wondered why even after Helsinki most Republicans avoided criticizing the president, this poll is your answer.
But on one question — whether voters approve of Trump expressing doubt about whether Russia tried to influence the 2016 election — the numbers look different. On that query, 60 percent of independents disapprove — a clear majority. Furthermore, only 51 percent of Republicans approve of Trump impugning the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions and 31 percent disapprove. Yes, that’s still a majority in favor, but by Republican standards, 51 percent support for the president is astonishingly low. Remember, at the 500-day mark of his presidency, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans was nearly 90 percent. Other than George W. Bush post-Sept. 11, that’s the highest support for a president within his own party since World War II. Any issue where only half of Republicans support the president and nearly a third oppose is an opportunity to erode enthusiasm among his base.
Why do the numbers look so different on those questions? As the rest of the poll shows, the vast majority of Republicans and large numbers of independents aren't disturbed by Trump's obsequiousness toward Russia. The numbers change when the topic changes to our elections. It seems that Russia concerns voters far less than interference with their votes.
And, this makes sense: While election security isn’t a traditional “kitchen table issue,” protecting one’s vote is more relatable to voters than whether NATO allies raise defense spending. One thing all voters do have in common is, well, voting. Think about it this way: If, for example, in 2020 a cabal of domestic actors — say, a group of billionaires — steals and leaks a presidential campaign’s emails, voters won’t be any less angry because the conspiracy wasn’t orchestrated by a foreign adversary. What they care about is the intrusion, not the background of the intruders. This week, Democrats wisely pushed for more state election-security funding, which Republicans blocked. Don’t be surprised if Democrats continue to hammer the GOP on this.
It’s understandable why opponents of the president think “Trump sided with Putin” should be a convincing argument. Putin’s criminal regime is no friend to decent people. But for everyone who understands that protecting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe is vital, this poll is a reminder to keep election interference itself front and center when making that case.
James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.