By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst
On Friday, FBI Director James Comey threw a bomb into the race for president by sending a letter to Congress. In the letter, Comey indicated that the FBI was going to begin reviewing newly found emails – apparently obtained from a laptop used by former Congressman Anthony Weiner – that might be related to the investigation into whether Hillary Clinton broke the law in the course of her use of a private server for her emails while she was Secretary of State.
Sending this letter is an extraordinary move in an extraordinary election year, by an agency that usually seeks to avoid any appearance of influencing an election. The American political world exploded into a frenzy.
Donald Trump and his campaign immediately sought to make hay out of the letter, calling it “bigger than Watergate”. Clinton and her campaign meanwhile sought to downplay the significance of the letter by pointing out that there was too little information in it to draw any real conclusions, and describing Director Comey as reckless for injecting himself into the presidential race just eleven days before the election.
Director Comey appears to be concerned that if he had decided against notifying Congress and it had later become clear that the FBI was again reviewing Clinton emails, then he would have been open to accusations of having protected Clinton from the Republican Party.
With now just one week remaining until the election, the important question is how this could affect the outcome. The election is in its final stage, and so it is a dynamic situation that is affected in a few different ways by an event like this. To assess the impact, it’s important to first look at the context, and then to consider how the Clinton email controversy will make a difference.
FBI Director James Comey testifying before a congressional committee [Source: FBI]
The Polls Were Already Narrowing
Tracking polls show that after Clinton opened up a wide lead in the wake of the debates, the race began to narrow again somewhat over the last ten days. Clinton’s mid-October national lead by an average of 7 percentage points is now back down to about 4 percent, which is only marginally better than it was before the first debate. The main reason for the narrowing appears to be because white Republican voters have gravitated back towards Trump, which mirrors the narrowing in the polls we saw between the conventions and the debates.
In the swing states, Clinton’s lead has diminished to the point where Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Ohio, and Iowa, look winnable for Trump again, especially if there is a big surge in turnout among his strongest voting groups. Georgia and Alaska, both typically Republican states that looked good for Clinton a week ago, have now moved almost out of reach for her, though she still has a formidable lead in Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. Almost all of this reflects the situation just before the revelation of Director Comey’s letter to Congress.
However, early voting has also been underway in many states, and mail-in absentee ballots have also largely been cast already. Both sides have claimed advantages in the numbers, but overall the Clinton campaign working together with local and statewide Democratic campaigns, looks to be ahead in early voting. That means that many votes in crucial places are already in the bank and will be unaffected by the email-related developments.
How the Emails Could Still Affect the Race
The letter sent by Director Comey to Congress is everything and nothing at once. In his vague and bureaucratic language, typical of an agency like the FBI, Director Comey provided no indication of whether or not the new review will result in anything substantial, and so speculation about what exactly is being reviewed has run rampant. Unless the FBI decides to clarify further, the vagueness of the letter allows the Trump campaign to freely claim whatever it wants about the emails, while the Clinton campaign has a strong counter argument to make as well.
If the announcement had been an indictment, or if evidence of specific wrongdoing by Clinton had been revealed, this event could have been a worst-case scenario for Clinton and the Democrats. But as it stands, each side is essentially able to retreat to its corner and there is little evidence that it will affect those voters who are already strongly partisan, many of whom have already voted.
In that sense, this is unlikely to significantly impact the race, but the Clinton campaign is still on the defensive now. The letter is a powerful reminder of the Clinton email controversy, which plays into voters existing concerns about Clinton’s trustworthiness. This will push some of the few remaining undecided voters towards Trump or towards protest votes for third party candidates. In the closest swing states that have been narrowing already, even small shifts of that kind could make the difference.
Turnout could also change as a result of the return of the email controversy. The Trump campaign is using it to galvanize his supporters, and to remind disaffected Republican voters who are considering staying home why they oppose Clinton. On the other side, the Democrats could see turnout on their side depressed as a result, although the renewed possibility of Trump winning the election also gives them a powerful counter push to that dynamic.
Overall, Clinton still has the deck stacked in her advantage and remains the favorite to win. Unless her lead in Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and North Carolina collapses, she still has a relatively easy path to victory. Conversely, Trump has a very difficult path to victory. He needs to win in all the states that have narrowed recently, and then also turn around at least one or two states that still look safe for Clinton. If it comes down to just two or three percent in these crucial states, Clinton’s formidable turnout efforts might then be the final difference maker.
One thing to remember is that this letter is unlikely to be a one-off event. The FBI has given no indication when their review of the newly found emails will conclude and there have been conflicting reports on the magnitude of the review. That means there could be more revelations in store – even before Election Day – or we might see consequences further in the future. If the new review leads to evidence that Clinton did in fact break the law when she used a private server for her emails, she could be indicted. That would be crippling to a Clinton administration, if she wins.