The pollsters said that the letter by FBI Director James Comey probably did not tilt the election, and now we have The New York Times’ Nate Cohn throwing more cold water on the notion that the document was a decisive factor in the 2016 election. The October 28 letter informed Congress that the FBI would be reviewing more emails that were later to be revealed on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, the husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Abedin also forwarded emails to that laptop, some of which contained classified information. Hillary Clinton has blamed Comey and the Russians for costing her the 2016 election. Cohn noted that it makes sense. Clinton was ahead by six points, but dropped to three a week after the letter was made public. How close the election was also feeds into the notion that the letter played a pivotal role. Cohn noted that it’s plausible, though we now know that Clinton was weaker going into the final stages of the election, that Clinton was actually gaining in the polls heading into the weekend before Election Day, and that the lack of polling is sort of hard to concretely say that the letter had any impact whatsoever:
Some analysts have used poll aggregators or forecasting models to measure the effect of the Comey letter, and they have implicitly treated this Upshot poll, and others conducted before the news but released after, as evidence of a Comey effect. But it can’t be; for example, none of the people we polled for our survey knew about the letter.
Unfortunately, there is not much polling from this narrow period before the Comey letter and well after the third presidential debate. But it was accepted at the time that Mrs. Clinton’s lead was slipping heading into the morning of Oct. 28. The ABC/Washington Post tracking poll conducted over the same period as the Upshot/Siena poll of Florida, for instance, showed Mrs. Clinton’s lead at just two points, down from a double-digit lead after the third debate. That poll was also released after Mr. Comey’s letter.
Most important, the polls taken before the letter were as bad for Mrs. Clinton as those conducted after it. Again, there aren’t many of these polls, but taken at face value there’s a case that Mrs. Clinton had nearly or even completely bottomed out by the time the Comey letter was released. Even if she had not, the trend line heading into the Comey letter was bad enough that there’s no need to assume that the Comey letter was necessary for any additional erosion in her lead.
Even if the Comey letter did affect the race at that point, the effect might have faded in the final days of the campaign. Mrs. Clinton’s national lead in the polls grew over the weekend ahead of the election.
In retrospect, there is virtually no evidence to support the view that Mrs. Clinton really had a six-point lead by Oct. 28, even if it was a very reasonable interpretation of the polls that had been released to that point. She didn’t have a six-point lead in any of the 16 (sometimes low-quality) national surveys that went into the field on or after Oct. 23 and were completed before the Comey letter, including her steadily shrinking lead in the ABC/Washington Post tracker.
It’s hard to rule out the possibility that Mr. Comey was decisive in such a close election. Mr. Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by less than a percentage point. Even if there were no evidence to support a shift after Mr. Comey’s letter, there would still be reason to wonder whether his actions were decisive. The story dominated the news for much of the week before the election. One could imagine how Mr. Comey’s letter might have swayed voters who remained undecided heading into Election Day.
But in such a close election, anything and everything could have plausibly been decisive.
Again, Russia and Director Comey did not tell Hillary to avoid white working class voters, skip campaigning in Michigan and Wisconsin, and call those supporting Trump “deplorable.” Comey didn’t tell her to establish an unsecure and unauthorized private email server, one of the point sources for her campaign ails, to conduct all official State Department business. Comey didn’t say to accept high six-figure speaking engagements that made her look inauthentic and detached from the economic hardships of working class voters. And Comey certainly did not tell her to run a campaign with zero messaging regarding job creation, trade, and economic growth. Heck, a sizable chunk of Obama voters who flipped for Trump thought that the 2016 Democratic agenda favored the wealthy. Clinton was unlikable, not trusted, and was generally seen as dishonest. It didn’t help that she treated her email fiasco with epic flippancy and then head into the bunker for almost a year, not holding any press conferences with the media. The many trip-ups Clinton had during the 2016 cycle all landed squarely on her. And this prevarication in taking full responsibility is becoming a pathetic spectacle.