I don’t know what is contained in the emails allegedly found on Anthony Weiner’s electronic device, which occasioned the “review” and the heads-up the FBI felt constrained to give Republican committee chairmen in Congress 11 days before a general election. Neither do you. So any hard predictions of what the incident might mean politically are simply not in order.
Assuming there is nothing literally incriminating in the emails (or nothing that will come out before Election Day, anyway), the scariest thing for the Clinton campaign involves the conventional wisdom that the candidate who can best avoid media attention down the stretch is likeliest to win. In a contest where both candidates are unpopular, the reasoning goes, you don’t want voters to head to the polls freshly reminded of what they most dislike about you. The final week or so of the campaign looked like it would be dominated by ever-more-shrill statements by Donald Trump about rigged elections and the women peddling “fake” accusations of sexual misconduct against him. The spotlight had largely focused away from Clinton, aside from thoughts about the prospect of her breaking the glass ceiling, which even a fair number of the people intending to vote against her might appreciate. That’s now changed, for the moment at least.
But the underlying “story” of the emails isn’t some sort of bombshell, and the odds are that the negative attention and any lingering substantive concerns among voters will be too little, too late to make much of a difference.
As Nate Silver points out in a very clear-eyed reaction to today’s news, the original Comey press conference on the emails, which was mainly reported as a stern official confirmation of very bad behavior by Clinton, only cost her about two points in the polls. It’s hard to imagine an echo of that bad story for Clinton having a greater impact, particularly with early voting already underway and the number of undecided voters steadily declining. But in any event, she could probably weather a two-point drop in support right now.
On the other hand, the new email story — unless the FBI or press leaks take the air out of it right away — is a heaven-sent opportunity for the Trump campaign to convince its supporters he can still win, and that his ranting and raving about Clinton’s supposed criminality is being vindicated. It won’t get him 270 electoral votes, but it could boost Republican turnout enough to make a difference in down-ballot races, and maybe make the evening of November 8 suspenseful, even if fears of voting-machine hacks or Trumpian violence prove fanciful.