I’ve heard from people who wonder whether Friday’s news – that FBI director James Comey was investigating additional emails that may be pertinent to Hillary Clinton’s private email server — might have come too late in the campaign to be reflected in the polls, and therefore in our forecast, before Election Day. While the situation isn’t ideal, there’s probably just enough time left to measure the initial impact. In the past, major developments in the campaign have generally taken somewhere around a week to be fully reflected in our forecast, give or take a couple of days depending on the volume of polling. Because we expect there to be an awful lot of polling during the remaining 10 days of the campaign, and because our forecast is designed to react fairly aggressively to late polling shifts, we should have a pretty good read on the initial reaction to the news by the middle of next week.
But while I’m not that worried about the model having enough time to account for the reaction to the FBI news, I am worried about whether it will capture the reaction to the reaction as the story continues to develop. The thing about Friday’s news is that it left a lot of questions unanswered. Comey’s letter to Congress was cryptic, and his motivations for sending it were uncertain. There are conflicting reports about whether the emails include messages to or from Clinton, how many emails there are, whether they’re new or something the FBI has looked at already, and whether the FBI requires a court order to investigate them in more detail. Even the reporting that the investigation pertains to devices owned by ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin, is based on anonymous sourcing. There’s a lot we don’t know.
It seems to me as though there are four basic courses the story might take. As a framing device, I’m going to conceive of these as four strategies available to the Clinton campaign, although of course the campaign isn’t the only actor here – the Trump campaign, the FBI, the news media, down-ballot candidates and so forth also have some choices to make.
Strategy No. 1: Demand more details from Comey
This was Clinton’s initial strategy during her brief press conference on Friday, where she said that “the American people deserve to get the full and complete facts immediately.”
This approach carries a couple of advantages. First, Clinton may reasonably believe that the details of the case aren’t as bad as the headlines. Voters may fill in the blanks when words like “FBI,” “Clinton” and “investigation” appear in the same headline, even if there’s more smoke than fire to the case. But as more information about the case has come to light, the implications seem less severe for Clinton than they did at first.
Another advantage is that Clinton may get credit from the media for appearing as though she has nothing to hide. There’s a whole school of “savvy” political reporting that holds that it isn’t the crime that matters, but the cover-up. In this view, a relatively minor scandal can become a serious “political problem” if the candidate doesn’t handle it appropriately by showing the right amount of openness and contrition. To say the least, I’m not a fan of this approach, which diverts voters’ attention from the evidence and instead inserts the reporter or pundit as the equivalent of a figure-skating judge who grades the candidates based on artistic impression. But it’s a widespread paradigm in the press, and Clinton could gain more sympathetic coverage if she plays by the media’s rules.
The risk is that by continuing to litigate the case, Clinton could keep the story in the news, which could be a negative for her even if further details prove to be exculpatory. At this point in the election, it’s mostly so-called low-information voters who are still making up their minds — not necessarily those who will read the fine print. And in general this year, candidates have tended to lose ground in the polls whenever they’ve been in the headlines. A day that the media spends talking about Comey and emails is also a day that they don’t spend talking about Trump, and his many vulnerabilities.
Strategy No. 2: Rile up Democratic partisans by attacking Comey and other targets
While Clinton herself hasn’t yet attacked Comey’s motivations, her top surrogates and advisors like John Podesta are already doing so. There’s the risk of hypocrisy here given that some of these same Clinton surrogates were praising and defending Comey after the FBI chose not to charge Clinton in July. But the target for arguments like these is not undecided voters who are looking for logical consistency, so much as Democratic partisans who are looking for reasons to feel aggrieved. One reason that scandals and gaffes often don’t have as much impact on the polls as pundits expect is because we live in a highly partisan era, and even highly negative news stories can sometimes wind up motivating a candidate’s own supporters to vote.
Clinton and her surrogates could also take a cue from the Republican playbook by attacking the media for way it’s covered the story. But that’s a riskier strategy for a Democrat, especially given that the public is more inclined to think the media is biased against Trump than against Clinton. Still, the longer the story remains in the news, the more risk there is of fatigue or backlash against it, and Clinton can potentially gain sympathy among Democratic partisans by protesting that the media is obsessed with her “damn emails” at the expense of everything else at stake in the election.
Strategy No. 3: Let it go
This is the opposite of strategy No. 1. Here the Clinton campaign lays low after calculating that the story will die of its own accord. And it may be what we see if the campaign doesn’t see much impact from the FBI news in public and internal polls by early next week. The Clinton campaign woke up Friday morning with a lead of 5 or 6 percentage points nationally. The campaign could afford to lose a point or two, especially if it expects the impact to fade by Election Day (although that may be less true for down-ballot races, where the margin in many states is within 1 or 2 percentage points).
It can be easy to underestimate how quickly the media can turn from one story to the next. Many stories that seem major at the time wind up garnering no more than two or three days of coverage, provided there’s nothing further to perpetuate them — or if there’s something else that pre-empts them.
Strategy No. 4: Drop an opposition research bomb on Trump
Speaking of which, I often see reporters speculating or predicting that the Clinton campaign is sitting on one or two major pieces of opposition research about Trump, which they’ll leak to the press at a time of maximum strategic advantage. There’s reason to be skeptical of these claims: If the Clinton campaign had something great, wouldn’t they have released it already, especially given that people are already voting in many states?
But the FBI news may slightly increase the chance that we’ll see counter-attacks against Trump. Especially if the polls do tighten, the usually risk-averse Clinton campaign may become more willing to push a story that has some risk of backfiring (say, a serious accusation against Trump that isn’t backed up by more than one source). News organizations and their potential sources may also become more willing to run with these stories if the election becomes closer, taking on more legal and reputational risk, whereas they’d bypass them if Clinton seemed to have the election in the bag.
If the Clinton campaign does have something major on Trump — or even something minor — there’s a lot of art and science involved in when it drops the story. Too soon, and it could get swept beneath the undertow of the FBI story. Too late, and it might look desperate. But one way the campaign could end is with a whole crescendo of major stories dropping. That could make things complicated for pollsters and forecasters.