Tuesday, May 30, 2017
"Hillary Clinton would probably be president if FBI Director James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28. The letter, which said the FBI had “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into the private email server that Clinton used as secretary of state, upended the news cycle and soon halved Clinton’s lead in the polls, imperiling her position in the Electoral College.
The letter isn’t the only reason that Clinton lost. It does not excuse every decision the Clinton campaign made. Other factors may have played a larger role in her defeat, and it’s up to Democrats to examine those as they choose their strategy for 2018 and 2020.
But the effect of those factors — say, Clinton’s decision to give paid speeches to investment banks, or her messaging on pocket-book issues, or the role that her gender played in the campaign — is hard to measure. The impact of Comey’s letter is comparatively easy to quantify, by contrast. At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by 3 or 4 percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona. At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so. Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.
And yet, from almost the moment that Trump won the White House, many mainstream journalists have been in denial about the impact of Comey’s letter. The article that led The New York Times’s website the morning after the election did not mention Comey or “FBI” even once — a bizarre development considering the dramatic headlines that the Times had given to the letter while the campaign was underway. Books on the campaign have treated Comey’s letter as an incidental factor, meanwhile. And even though Clinton herself has repeatedly brought up the letter — including in comments she made at an event in New York on Tuesday — many pundits have preferred to change the conversation when the letter comes up, waving it away instead of debating the merits of the case.
The motivation for this seems fairly clear: If Comey’s letter altered the outcome of the election, the media may have some responsibility for the result. The story dominated news coverage for the better part of a week, drowning out other headlines, whether they were negative for Clinton (such as the news about impending Obamacare premium hikes) or problematic for Trump (such as his alleged ties to Russia). And yet, the story didn’t have a punchline: Two days before the election, Comey disclosed that the emails hadn’t turned up anything new.
One can believe that the Comey letter cost Clinton the election without thinking that the media cost her the election — it was an urgent story that any newsroom had to cover. But if the Comey letter had a decisive effect and the story was mishandled by the press — given a disproportionate amount of attention relative to its substantive importance, often with coverage that jumped to conclusions before the facts of the case were clear — the media needs to grapple with how it approached the story. More sober coverage of the story might have yielded a milder voter reaction.
My focus in this series of articles has been on the media’s horse-race coverage rather than its editorial decisions overall, but when it comes to the Comey letter, these things are intertwined. Not only was the letter probably enough to swing the outcome of the horse race, but the reverse is also true: Perceptions of the horse race probably affected the way the story unfolded. Publications may have given hyperbolic coverage to the Comey letter in part because they misanalyzed the Electoral College and wrongly concluded that Clinton was a sure thing. And Comey himself may have released his letter in part because of his overconfidence in Clinton’s chances. It’s a mess — so let’s see what we can do to untangle it.
Clinton was in a danger zone before Comey’s letter
Clinton woke up on the morning of Oct. 28 as the likely — by no means certain — next president. Trump had come off a period of five weeks in which he’d had three erratic debates and numerous women accuse him of sexual assault after the “Access Hollywood” tape became public. Clinton led by approximately 6 percentage points in national polls and by 6 to 7 points in polls of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Her leads in Florida and North Carolina were narrow, and she was only tied with Trump in Ohio and Iowa.1 But it was a pretty good overall position.
Her standing was not quite as safe as it might have appeared from a surface analysis, however. For one thing, there were still lots of undecided voters, especially in the Midwest. Although Trump had a paltry 37 percent to 38 percent of the vote in polls of Michigan, for instance, Clinton had only 43 percent to 44 percent. That left the door open for Trump to leapfrog her if late developments caused undecideds to break toward him. Furthermore, in the event that the race tightened, Clinton’s vote was inefficiently distributed in the Electoral College, concentrated in coastal states rather than swing states. While she had only an 11 percent chance of losing the popular vote according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast that morning, her chances of losing the Electoral College were a fair bit higher: 18 percent.
Another danger to Clinton was complacency. Several days earlier, the Times had written that she was on the verge of having an “unbreakable lead.” And there was a risk that people looking at statistical forecasts were misreading them and “rounding up” a probable Clinton win to a sure thing. (We’ll take up that topic up at more length in a future article in this series.) But Clinton had actually slipped by a percentage point or so in polls since the final debate on Oct. 19. And the news cycle had become somewhat listless; the most prevalent story that morning was about the trial in the Oregon wildlife refuge standoff. Clinton was in a danger zone: Her lead wasn’t quite large enough to be truly safe, but it was large enough to make people mistakenly think it was.
The Comey letter almost immediately sank Clinton’s polls
News of the Comey letter broke just before 1 p.m. Eastern time on Oct. 28, when Utah. Rep Jason Chaffetz tweeted about it, noting the existence of the letter and stating (incorrectly, it turned out2) that the case into Clinton’s private email server had been “reopened.” The story exploded onto the scene; Fox News was treating Chaffetz’s tweet as “breaking news” within 15 minutes, and the FBI story dominated headlines everywhere within roughly an hour. In an element of tabloid flair, it was soon reported that the emails in question were found on a computer owned by Anthony Weiner, the former congressman, as part of an investigation into whether he’d sent sexually explicit messages to teenage girls.
Few news organizations gave the story more velocity than The New York Times. On the morning of Oct. 29, Comey stories stretched across the print edition’s front page, accompanied by a photo showing Clinton and her aide Huma Abedin, Weiner’s estranged wife. Although some of these articles contained detailed reporting, the headlines focused on speculation about the implications for the horse race —
That Comey’s decision to issue the letter had been so unorthodox and that the contents of the letter were so ambiguous helped fuel the story. The Times’s print lead on Oct. 30 was about Clinton’s pushback against Comey, and a story it published two days later explained that Comey had broken with precedent in releasing the letter. It covered all sides of the controversy. But the controversy was an unwelcome one for Clinton, since it involved voters seeing words like “Clinton,” “email,” “FBI” and “investigation” together in headlines. Within a day of the Comey letter, Google searches for “Clinton FBI” had increased 50-fold and searches for “Clinton email” almost tenfold.
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,3 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....
The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton The Election | FiveThirtyEight