As my colleague Eric Levitz explains, there is a growing consensus among Democratic analysts that the catastrophic reversal of fortune between the 2012 and 2016 presidential results was largely attributable to Obama ’12 voters, concentrated in the Rust Belt, who switched to Trump or didn’t show up. Many of these voters were unhappy with an economy that they associated with Democrats, whose traditional reputation of solidarity with working-class Americans was blurred or lost. And as Eric notes, this diagnosis is compatible with more than one Democratic prescription for the future: a “populist” message to win back the Obama-Trump voters, or better mobilization of under-voting minorities to offset white working-class losses.
But FBI Director James Comey’s latest appearance before Congress, in which he defended his “painful” decision to announce a reopening of scrutiny of Hillary Clinton emails just 11 days before November 8, is a reminder of how Clinton’s loss unfolded in real time. Maybe this or that factor, including the eroding image of Democratic economic policy to certain Obama voters, made Clinton vulnerable to what actually happened. But what actually happened was the Comey Letter, at the worst possible time.
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight reminds us that the letter hit the media and then the measurable standing of the candidates like a tornado:
Clinton’s standing in the polls fell sharply. She’d led Trump by 5.9 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s popular vote projection at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 28. A week later — after polls had time to fully reflect the letter — her lead had declined to 2.9 percentage points. That is to say, there was a shift of about 3 percentage points against Clinton. And it was an especially pernicious shift for Clinton because (at least according to the FiveThirtyEight model) Clinton was underperforming in swing states as compared to the country overall. In the average swing state, Clinton’s lead declined from 4.5 percentage points at the start of Oct. 28 to just 1.7 percentage points on Nov. 4. If the polls were off even slightly, Trump could be headed to the White House.
They were off a bit more than slightly in Rust Belt battleground states, though not nationally. And while other things were happening that may have accounted for some of the late decline for Clinton, the timing of the Comey letter and the dominant role it assumed in the media are hard to explain away:
[I]t’s not credible to claim that the Comey letter had no effect at all. It was the dominant story of the last 10 days of the campaign. According to the news aggregation site Memeorandum, which algorithmically tracks which stories are gaining the most traction in the mainstream media, the Comey letter was the lead story on six out of seven mornings from Oct. 29 to Nov. 4 …
It’s rare to see stories linger in headlines for more than two to three days given how quickly the news cycle moves during election campaigns. When one does, some effect on the polls is often expected. And that’s what we saw. The sharpness of the decline — with Clinton losing 3 points in a week — is consistent with a news-driven shift, rather than gradual reversion to the mean.
Non-Comey factors, including those within the control of candidate Clinton, may have magnified the Comey Effect, by creating a larger pool of undecided voters in key states that were up for grabs when the story hit. And certainly the Clinton campaign failed to take enough countermeasures in the states that wound up beating her. But the fact remains that but for the Comey Letter, Clinton would have probably been elected president, with all her problems and mistakes.
That’s certainly what Silver concludes. And he also offers a real wrinkle in how it happened: The New York Times, which drove the magnitude and shrillness of Comey Letter coverage, did so because it wanted to get a jump on postelection Clinton administration “scandal” coverage. Like a lot of other news sources, the Times thought the presidential election was over by October 28, whereas in fact Clinton had a vulnerable lead that was smaller in certain states that most Democrats thought were already in the bag. Comey Letter coverage tipped it all into a surprise barn-burner that Trump won despite a popular-vote defeat by the political equivalent of an inside straight.
The lessons of the Comey Letter incident aren’t especially clear, since it is hard to imagine the exact same series of events recurring. But that shouldn’t take away from it significance:
If I were advising a future candidate on what to learn from 2016, I’d tell him or her to mostly forget about the Comey letter and focus on the factors that were within the control of Clinton and Trump. That’s not my purpose here. Instead, it’s to get at the truth — to figure out the real story of the election. The real story is that the Comey letter had a fairly large and measurable impact, probably enough to cost Clinton the election.
It’s a grand irony that mainstream-media-hating Donald Trump may have been awarded the presidency in no small part because the “failing” New York Times chose to cover the Comey Letter like it was the most important development in the campaign, if not in the whole wide world. He may not be so lucky in 2020.