Did James Comey’s Letter Cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 Election?

On 8 November 2016, in one of the most shocking political earthquakes in American history, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College to win the US Presidency, by winning over traditionally Democratic states in the Midwest. 

There are a plethora of factors that contributed in some capacity to Clinton’s loss but it is worth noting that she won the national popular vote by 2.8 million votes. I would argue that the main reason why Clinton lost the 2016 election at the eleventh-hour, was the letter FBI Director James Comey sent to Congress reopening the investigation into her emails. 

I am confident, along with authoritative statistician Nate Silver, that the letter was the nail in the coffin for her. It sent the established media into a frenzy at the renewed prospect of criminal charges for a presidential nominee less than a fortnight before a general election. It destroyed her momentum after the presidential debates and dredged up and reinforced many voters’ concerns once more about Clinton’s perceived untrustworthiness and elitism, in a period of rising populism across the political spectrum. 

It was a reminder for undecided voters of their negative preconceived ideas of a Clinton presidency, pushing undecided voters to break heavily for Trump in the last few days. 

It would not matter that two days before the election Comey would send another letter saying his conclusions had not changed from his press conference back in July 2016 (when he said publicly that Clinton had been ‘extremely careless’ with classified information by using her private email server whilst Secretary of State but that no charges would be brought against her. It was arguably an inappropriate intervention in the electoral process, but certainly consequential. Using a private email server for government business when in office was allowed when she was Secretary of State (Colin Powell had done the same). Much of the content of her emails that were deemed were only retroactively classified as such in later reviews, long after she had sent it. 

Comey’s letter precipitated a polling drop of as much as 3 to 4 points overnight for Clinton, and the margins of loss in those three critical Midwestern battleground states were so narrow (0.8%, 0.7% and 0.2% in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michiganrespectively), alongside Florida by 1.2%. and even Without the letter the ‘Obamaesque’ Electoral College landslide victory that many forecast could very well have materialised.

Even if she had still fallen short in Arizona (lost by 3.5%) and North Carolina (lost by 3.6%) by the skin of her teeth, winning the Midwestern states and Florida alone would have garnered her 308 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 230, a solid victory. 

There were a multitude of other reasons that put the Clinton campaign in such a vulnerable position so close to the election. Misogyny and the double-standards women in politics unfortunately face played a role, as did gaffes (especially her ‘basket of deplorables’ comment which was taken out of context to alienate swathes of Americans) and campaign mistakes (playing for light-red states like Arizona and Georgia when your own Blue Wall backyard with white working-class non-college educated voters was in peril was a costly mistake). Historical trends also worked against her. No party had held the White House for three successive terms since Bush succeeded Reagan in 1989, and there were 44 male presidents-worth of history against her. The lack of distinctive economic messaging hurt her too – it helped catalyse an opening for Trump in the Midwest among demographics already drifting from the Democratic Party. Clinton struggled with personal unpopularity and a perceived dishonesty (fairly or unfairly she was the second most unpopular presidential candidate in history after Trump), exacerbated by disinformation and twisted narratives. She also made poor decisions herself as well. Giving paid speeches to major financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and not releasing the transcripts in an era increasingly characterised by populism was never going to be a prudent political decision. 

Infamously, there was also industrial-scale Russian interference with the mass spreading of disinformation and leaking of hacked emails on Wikileaks that were damaging, from the DNC and campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account. One prominent staffer recalled in the Hulu documentary about the campaign the example of how the campaign preemptively compiled a document of all the possible spins and attacks they could face for the content of Clinton’s speeches to private institutions, and the hackers released that document, which deliberately had portrayed her actions in the worst way possible, and it was misconstrued as fact. 

However, it is worth noting that many of these statements were made retrospectively. I’ll use a well-known example: a common criticism of Clinton was that she misguided the focus on battleground states. It is true that she personally did not set foot in Wisconsin after the primary season wrapped up in June and it is held up as a posterchild for why the Blue Wall collapsed. What is not mentioned is that at the time there was no perceived need to double-down funding and attention onto the likes of Wisconsin; FiveThirtyEight gave her an 83.5% chance of winning the state and a 5.9% average poll lead in their final prediction. 

There is no doubt in my mind that countless factors weighed in and helped put Hillary Clinton’s campaign in a vulnerable position so late in the game. Ultimately, I think the greatest reason she lost the 2016 election was indeed the FBI Director’s unconventional and consequential letter on October 28, without which, despite all of the bedlam and norm-shattering drama of the campaign, she almost definitely would have become the first female and 45th President of the United States of America. 

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