Last Friday, FBI Director James Comey dropped a bomb in the middle of the presidential election. Comey’s revelation that the FBI had found additional emails that might be pertinent to investigation of Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information turned the campaign on its ear. The big question is how the Comey bombshell will affect the outcome of the election.
Donald Trump was quick to capitalize on Comey’s letter to Congress, calling it the “biggest political scandal since Watergate” according to USA Today. For her part, the Clinton campaign says the emails are nothing new and that voters have already made up their minds about her use of a private server while Secretary of State. The truth is that the revived scandal will almost certainly benefit Donald Trump, but probably by less than you think.
The bottom line is that Hillary Clinton’s image is unlikely to go much lower. Both candidates are historically unpopular. Even though Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable rating has been deep in negative territory for the entire campaign, Donald Trump’s has consistently been worse. People know them both and dislike them both.
Trump has alienated large swaths of the electorate over the past year. Those voters are unlikely to rally to his banner in the wake of renewed questions about Hillary’s emails. After campaigning for a wall on the Mexican border and deportation of illegal immigrants, a recent NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll found Trump 50 points behind Hillary with Hispanic voters, who make up a large share of voters in many swing states. After weeks of accusations of sexual misconduct, Clinton led Trump by 10 points among women according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week. Trump led by only two points among Republican women. Other recent polling found Trump with only four percent support among black voters and 21 percent among millennials. Perhaps with the exception of Republican women, few of these voters are likely to switch to Trump.
In the same way that many Trump supporters refused to believe the allegations against Donald Trump, many hardcore Clinton supporters and Democrats will simply refuse to accept the revelation of an additional trove of emails or rationalize it away. As Trump supporters argued against the credibility of Trump’s accusers, Clinton supporters will argue that the email scandal is almost two years old and has already been considered by voters after Director Comey’s July announcement that Clinton’s private server was careless, but not criminal.
Essentially, most people have made up their minds that the other candidate is worse than whatever problems their own candidate might have. According to Real Clear Politics, about 85 to 90 percent of the electorate has consistently supported either Trump or Hillary regardless of scandals or bad news of the day. Third party candidates account for another five to 10 percent. That leaves only about five percent of voters who are undecided and perhaps another five percent whose support for their candidate is soft enough to change. This means that the impact of the email scandal will be felt among a tiny sliver of the electorate.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that two-thirds of likely voters said that the investigation makes no difference in their support for Clinton. One-third said that it made them less likely to support Clinton, but nearly 70 percent of these voters already leaned Republican. This leaves about 10 percent of voters who are less likely to support Clinton and who weren’t already unlikely to vote for her.
The timing of the scandal also works against Donald Trump. For maximum effectiveness in the campaign, the Comey letter would have come several weeks earlier. In some states, early voting had already been going on for weeks. Reports on early voting show that Democrats were overrepresented in early voting in battleground states. These votes were locked in before Comey’s announcement. The fact that these voters cannot now change their vote or stay home works in Hillary’s favor.
Aside from swinging a few voters, there are possible additional benefits for Trump from the scandal. First, it could dampen enthusiasm among Democrats and cause some to stay home. Even with a high unfavorable rating, FiveThirtyEight noted last week that a majority of Clinton voters are voting for Hillary rather than against Trump. Even if new questions about her competence as commander-in-chief don’t push voters to Trump or third party candidates such as Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, some might find themselves busy with other activities on Election Day.
The reminder of Clinton’s failings as Secretary of State is also likely to help motivate the Republican base. An ABC News poll released on Oct. 31 shows a surge in Republican support for Donald Trump. The poll, which was taken during the period in which Comey notified Congress, shows Trump at 89 percent support among Republicans, up from a low of 82 percent. The upswing of support from undecided Republicans accounts for much of the tightening in the polls.
The final caveat is that national polls are misleading at this stage of the election. There are 51 separate elections rather than a single national vote. While many swing states are close and the email scandal may tip some of them to Donald Trump, the Electoral College still heavily favors Hillary Clinton. Clinton would have to lose virtually every contested state (Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio plus a blue state such as Pennsylvania or Wisconsin to lose the Electoral College. At this point, such a sweep by Donald Trump seems unlikely.
Barring another October surprise, it seems likely that Director Comey’s shocking announcement will have only a marginal effect on the election. It may help to shore up states like Arizona, Georgia, Missouri and Texas by energizing Republican support and could possibly push Florida, North Carolina and Ohio into the Trump column. The final result of the Electoral College is unlikely to change, however.