There was a brief moment moment Monday morning when White House counselor Kellyanne Conway appeared to agree with a lot of Democrats that James Comey, then the FBI director, swung the 2016 election toward Donald Trump with his late-in-the-game public pronouncements about Hillary Clinton’s email.
If Conway believed that, it would put her in line with a lot of Democrats, including Clinton herself, and also undercut Trump’s insistence that his win was all about him.
Conway’s comment, in the midst of a laundry list of gripes about Comey’s honesty and trustworthiness, seems to have an interrogatory inflection at the end, so it’s not exactly clear what she meant. But she quickly tried to clean things up, disputing ABC’s headline, “Kellyanne Conway slams Comey: ‘This guy swung an election’” as misleading on Twitter.
In a subsequent CNN interview, she made clear she was paraphrasing Democrats who feel that Comey swung the election.
“The Democrats are mad at Comey for lots of reasons,” said Conway. “They blame him for her loss. I saw Jim Comey last night, and I said, ‘This guy swung an election? I don’t think so!’ I definitely took away from that — he struggled to even answer basic questions.”
So on balance, it seems like what Conway said on ABC was a mangled talking point and not a declaration.
But the question – did Comey swing the election? – has been debated ad nauseam in the year-plus since November 2016. His admission that he assumed before the election that she would win will certainly renew the debate, which is academic at this point, but still worth considering.
Comey told lawmakers the thought of him swinging the election made him “mildly nauseous.”
Consider also Comey’s detailed detailed descriptions of why he decided in July 2016 to end-run around the Department of Justice to announce in the there was not enough evidence to prosecute Clinton over the “extremely careless” treatment of classified information in email and then, separately, his decision to publicly announce a new review in the closing days of the election to again review her treatment of classified data based on emails found in a separate investigation involving Anthony Weiner’s laptop.
It was a repeated barrage of news events in which Clinton was criticized but not charged and then scrutinized again. It played into voter’s already existing skepticism of her honesty and trustworthiness.
Even if it didn’t swing the election, it didn’t help.
There are compelling arguments on both sides.
Clinton is of the opinion that Comey was the determining factor.
“If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in May 2017. She’s said the same thing other times, so it must be a deeply held belief of hers.
“I take absolute personal responsibility. I was the candidate, I was the person who was on the ballot. I am very aware of the challenges, the problems, the shortfalls that we had,” Clinton told Amanpour, before adding that she was “on the way to winning until a combination of Jim Comey’s letter on October 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me and got scared off.”
Nate Silver of 538 published a lengthy examination in May 2017 that argued Comey’s letter telling lawmakers about a new review of Clinton’s email was the October surprise that helped put Trump in the White House.
It wasn’t the only problem Clinton had, he argues, but did represent the tipping point for her. He argues the because she lost in key battleground states by less than a percentage point, that seed of doubt was enough to change the outcome. In other words, Clinton was already on the downswing and Comey’s October 28 letter pushed her lower.
In national exit polls, Clinton’s use of private email as secretary of state troubled 63% of voters. Twenty-four percent of those voted for her anyway.
The opposite view, best displayed in a large review of 2016 polling data by the American Association of Public Opinion Research seeks to find evidence to support a swing toward Trump in those Rust Belt and Midwest states that he narrowly won and which proved to be decisive.
The AAPOR review shows that between 11% and 15% of voter decided in the last week of the election and these people in those states broke Trump, particularly in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan. (Note: the headlines about Trump, particularly the allegations of sexual misconduct by women against him, were equally as bad if not worse than the headlines about the FBI review of Clinton’s email.)
But it’s aggregation of polling data does not display a specific dip associated with either the October 28 letter or the November 6 letter essentially clearing Clinton.
“The evidence for a meaningful effect on the election from the FBI letter is mixed at best,” according to the AAPOR review.
They also note that factors other than Comey’s letter could explain Clinton’s slide in the Midwest.
Based on all of the data examined here, we would conclude there is at best mixed evidence to suggest that the FBI announcement tipped the scales of the race. Pairing this analysis with the preceding one on NEP data for late deciders, it remains unclear exactly why late-deciding voters broke for Trump in the Upper Midwest. Anecdotal reporting offered a number of other suggestions (e.g., Republicans skeptical of Trump finally “coming home,” Clinton’s campaign – believing the Upper Midwest was locked up – allocating time and money elsewhere, Democrats lukewarm on Clinton deciding to stay home), but ultimately the data available do not offer a definitive answer to this question.
AAPOR’s review is right on each of counts occurring in addition to Comey’s Oct. 28 and Nov. 6 letters. Add to it that Clinton was not investing her campaign or her time in the Midwest. Trump was.
There’s absolutely no doubt that Clinton’s losses in those states she (and just about everybody else) expected her to win is why she lost. But we’ll probably never be able to point to any one single event as being the single thing that made her lose them.
And on some level, it doesn’t really matter 17 months later. Trump is the President tangling with Comey now.