Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Did the FBI swing the US election?

What effect has the 10 days of uncertainty had? Clearly Comey’s initial comments helped Trump. Was his 6 November finding too late to help Clinton?

Did the FBI swing the US election?
Published 8 Nov 2016 

In a bizarre election where both candidates are drowning in voter distrust, states like Ohio, Florida and Nevada are close enough that it wouldn’t take much to nudge the race in either direction.

It still seems unlikely that Trump can catch up nationally. His own friendly fire calamities – from the Billy Bush 'locker room' tape to his own ill-advised attacks on women, the disabled and veterans – had handed Clinton a widening lead.

That was, of course, before FBI Director James Comey stepped in.

American voters have developed a thick skin when it comes to last-minute surprises in election campaigns. It happens at all levels – from president to the local school board. And it usually involves charges so flimsy that they can’t survive the scrutiny of a full news cycle. But this year’s presidential election campaign continues to push US politics into uncharted waters.

This year we were treated to late accusations that really amount to friendly fire and have taken an awkward 10 days to be debunked.

On 28 October, Hillary Clinton suddenly faced a revived investigation of her email handling because the FBI director – a member of the Obama team – decided to go rogue and tell the world that there may be smoke in a new trove of emails. Not a fire; just smoke. Democrats were furious; Republicans were ecstatic.

Despite a directive from Congress to produce details by 4 November, Comey and the FBI failed to deliver. But on 6 November Comey reaffirmed the Bureau’s earlier findings that there were no grounds for criminal charges against Clinton. The Democratic candidate’s reaction was along the lines of a muted 'told you so', in keeping with her mostly upbeat final message to voters. Donald Trump, however, used Comey’s statement to launch into a new tirade about a 'rigged system' and a corrupt 'swamp' in Washington that 'needs to be drained.'

But what effect has the 10 days of uncertainty had? Clearly Comey’s initial comments helped Trump. Was his 6 November finding too late to help Clinton?

The ten-day vacuum was filled by a surprisingly effective and coherent Trump ad campaign saying that Clinton can’t lead while she is under investigation. Gone was the 'crooked Hillary' language, replaced by a smart retelling of the multi-layered story of Clinton’s various ethical issues. Congressional Republicans fed into the hysteria by announcing plans to start impeachment efforts on inauguration day, if Clinton wins.

The result has been to move a block of undecided voters toward Trump, tightening the race nationally and pushing several states from pro-Clinton to tossup status. For the first time, there’s serious talk of a scenario in which Clinton wins the popular vote but loses the Electoral College. 

Many states have now closed days, even weeks, of early voting. Something north of 40 million votes have already been cast. Here in hotly contested Nevada, possibly as much as half of the vote has already been cast.For some of us who voted early, there’s a certain sense of well-being in knowing we have done our duty and now feel no obligation to pay attention to all this silliness. For others, buyer’s remorse has set in.

So has the reality that this won’t be over even when the last votes are counted.

With polls suggesting about 40% of the electorate is ready to deny the legitimacy of any result that doesn’t have Trump winning, this national divide isn’t going to narrow anytime soon. This nastiness could easily extend right into the 2020 campaign. As confusing as this must look from abroad, please be assured it makes little sense here either.

Photo by Flickr user djandywdotcom.

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