Days after losing the “most important election of our lifetime,” Hillary Clinton lay the blame for her defeat at the feet of the FBI.
“There are lots of reasons why an election like this is not successful,” Clinton conceded to donors in a conference call last Saturday, but “our analysis is that Comey’s letter raising doubts that were groundless, baseless, proven to be, stopped our momentum.”
Clinton’s assessment — combined with a report that her campaign refused to admit any strategic error in a phone call with surrogates — was met with frustration and derision by the Democratic nominee’s skeptics on both the left and right.
And from a tactical perspective, it makes sense to push James Comey to the margins of Team Blue’s 2016 postmortem. After all, the party was running against an authoritarian insult comic who had been caught on tape expressing his affinity for sexually assaulting women and ogling 12-year-old girls; a political neophyte with a tiny ad budget, little ground game, no message discipline, and, by all appearances, a deep ambivalence about whether he actually wanted to be president.
Clinton’s lead should have been Comey-proof. And it’s not like hindsight has failed to uncover glaring strategic errors: Clinton’s team didn’t send the candidate to Wisconsin once, aired more ads in Omaha than it did in the Badger State or Michigan combined, and chose to campaign minimally in the latter state, even though they knew it was vulnerable, because they “felt that if they could keep Trump away ― by acting overly confident about their chances ― they would win it by a small margin and with a marginal resource allocation. “
Mistakes were made. The Clinton campaign should hold itself accountable for them.
That said: There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that the director of the FBI just swung a presidential election to a right-wing demagogue. This seems like a detail worth dwelling on.
“With eleven days to go, something amazing happened,” Lewandowski recounted before the Oxford Union debating society Wednesday night. “The FBI’s director James [Comey] came out on a Friday and he said they may be reopening the investigation into Crooked Hillary’s emails.”
“What that did was remind people that there are two different rules in Washington — those of the elites and the privilege and those for everybody else,” Lewandowski went on to explain. “When Comey moved forward with that investigation … it allowed the campaign a little spring in their step, and for them to redouble their efforts.”
The “spring” in Trump’s step was followed by a spring in his support. Between mid-October and early November, the shape of the race changed dramatically.
In fact, exit polls highlighted by the Washington Post Thursday morning suggest that late-deciders provided the entire margin of Trump’s victory:
In Florida and Pennsylvania, late-deciders favored Trump by 17 points. In Michigan, they went for Trump by 11 points. In Wisconsin, they broke for Trump by a whopping 29 points, 59-30
… And these weren’t small groups of voters. The number of undecided and third-party-supporting voters who were still free agents in the final week was as many as 1 in 8 voters nationally – an uncharacteristically high number for the eve of an election
… If we grant that the numbers are all spot-on — a hefty “if,” given the wiggle room in exit polls – it would mean Trump in the final week gained about 4 full points in Wisconsin, 2.5 points in Pennsylvania, 2 points in Florida and 1.5 points in Michigan.
Absent those last-minute gains, Clinton would have won all four states.
Now, the last-minute swing to Trump could have been produced by forces independent of James Comey. For one thing, the GOP nominee was already gaining on Clinton before the FBI director decided to inform Congress that he had discovered some new (almost certainly irrelevant) Clinton emails. A significant number of right-leaning Gary Johnson voters were probably always going to come home for the Republican nominee. Plus, late-deciding voters have a history of breaking for the opposition party.
What’s more, there’s some evidence that many of these late-deciders might have actually been late confessors — which is to say, shy Trump voters.
Per Cornell researchers Peter K. Enns and Jonathon P. Schuldt:
During elections, most public opinion surveys try to identify likely voters and use them to predict the winner. Working with our students at Cornell University, we took a different approach by focusing on respondents who said they did not intend to vote for Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump.
In our survey, this was a sizable group — more than 20 percent of the public — and our analysis indicated that they leaned toward Mr. Trump. Whether undecided or unwilling to openly express their support, this group was hidden to pollsters focusing on likely voters.
We had found hidden Trump supporters, but we did not expect them to swing the election. After all, these respondents were unwilling to directly express their support for Mr. Trump and were the most likely to indicate that if both candidates had flaws, it was better not to vote. But vote they did.
The researchers found that these “hidden Trump supporters” were far more moderate in their political views than voters who were willing to commit themselves to Trump. Which may explain why Clinton performed much better among college-educated whites in pre–Election Day polls than she did on November 8 — many socially moderate suburbanites seem to have waited until the last minute to decide they cared more about tax cuts than the security of vulnerable minority groups.
But none of this exonerates Comey. Internal polling from both campaigns showed a significant tightening immediately after the FBI director’s letter. And, to the extent that “shy” Trump voters were seeking permission to vote for their preferred party, Comey’s letter provided it — if they’re both crooks, what can you do?
It’s impossible to disaggregate all the variables that allowed Trump to edge past Clinton in a few key states. But here’s what we know: The Justice Department had a long-standing prohibition against drawing attention to investigations of political candidates in the closing stages of a campaign. The intention of this policy was to prevent law enforcement from swinging elections by calling attention to unproven allegations.
James Comey ignored this prohibition. And his letter put unproven allegations about Clinton’s lawlessness back into the headlines — less than two weeks before Election Day. Donald Trump’s own campaign staff say that letter was a key turning point in the race. And exit polls seem to support their assessment.
Whatever his intentions, Comey appears to have demonstrated that federal law enforcement can use its investigatory powers to swing close elections.
Corey Lewandowski shouldn’t be the only “media professional” dwelling on this fact.