Of all the endlessly competing theories for the shocking outcome of the 2016 presidential election, two have always struck me as the most credible. The first is that general overconfidence in a Clinton victory led her campaign to make a series of strategic errors (e.g, putting resources into states like Arizona and Georgia while shirking the “Clinton firewall” states that eventually swung the electoral college to Donald Trump) while convincing many of her potential voters that it was safe to stay home on Election Day. The second is that James Comey’s highly public insertion of the Clinton email issue into the media bloodstream on two occasions late in the contest hurt her decisively among swing voters and obscured the Access Hollywood scandal that had put the spotlight on Trump in a very damaging way.
Now the two competing explanations are beginning to converge.
As Comey confesses in his new book (and in this segment from his forthcoming ABC News interview), his own assumption that Clinton was a lock to win had a big impact on how he handled disclosure of the last-minute email “story”:
It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls.
And as New York’s Jonathan Chait recently reminded us, Comey’s political assumption was widely shared throughout the FBI. In the absence of a competitive election, Chait argues, Comey concluded that heading off a future conspiracy theory was a reasonable thing to do:
In Comey’s mind, bending procedure and announcing he was investigating a candidate was an acceptable price to pay to avoid the opposite: years of hearings and delegitimization that would surely follow Clinton’s expected election.
The belief that Clinton couldn’t lose is the only way to make sense of what a lot of people said and did in October 2016. But most of them did not have as much power to derail her campaign as Comey.
Polls are usually blamed for the illusion of Clinton’s invulnerability. But for the most part, they weren’t that far off track, particularly if you recall that she won the popular vote by more than 2 percent, and prescient observers noted before the election that Trump was in striking distance based on the polls.
Other factors fed the certainty about the outcome too, including Clinton’s money advantage, the things we were all hearing about early voting, and the apparent fecklessness of Trump’s campaign apparatus. And then there was the amazing, inside-straight nature of Trump’s electoral college win. I was actually very close to predicting the popular vote. But it just didn’t occur to me that Trump could lose battleground states like Colorado and Virginia and New Hampshire and still win 270 electoral votes by narrowly winning states that hadn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since 1988 (Michigan and Pennsylvania) or even 1984 (Wisconsin).
Perhaps all the pollsters and prognosticators who guessed wrong about 2016 are complicit in fostering the overconfidence of the Clinton campaign, Democratic voters — and yes — even James Comey. Certainly the big national news organizations whose coverage decisions reflected an apparent belief that the victorious Clinton could safely be taken down a few pegs over the email “story” have a lot to answer for. But in the end it was probably the difficulty of envisioning a President Trump that fed the overconfidence about Clinton most of all. It couldn’t happen here, until it did. And Comey is just one of the players in the political game who must now regret their lack of imagination. His mistake, however, had far bigger consequences than most.