The Structure of the Race

The news cycle today is being dominated by FBI Director James Comey’s decision to announce his intention to investigate emails uncovered from the Anthony Weiner probe which were neither sent nor received by Hillary Clinton, may or may not contain classified information, and may or may not be duplicates of email already reviewed by the agency. As of this hour, the story appears to be moving toward questions about Comey’s judgment in making the email investigation public, but within moments of the first Breaking News banner it was clear the political media viewed this as a horserace matter rather than a substantive question of Hillary Clinton’s culpability in mishandling sensitive material. The Clinton email narrative is so well established that even as reporters acknowledged that Comey’s announcement doesn’t implicate the candidate, they began speculating about what it would mean to Clinton’s chances now that all they would want to talk about is her emails. The New York Times headline today read: “Emails Found in Weiner Inquiry Jolt Race.” Indeed.

The problem for the Clinton campaign is now that the email bell has been rung, subsequent details will not matter to voters for whom the phrase “Clinton email” is synonymous with mistrust and deception. The campaign can try to pressure Comey to release a clarifying statement or raise doubts about his professionalism but they will still be talking about emails, which means Clinton will remain on defense. Now, if history is a reasonable guide, Donald Trump will soon insist we start talking about him, and without any additional email revelations the press may move on to another shiny object. But in the event this story is the final turn of the 2016 campaign, it might be a good time to answer the question being raised by political reporters and consider what difference it is likely to make.

Every election has a structure. The constants in this election include surprisingly encouraging economic figures and (not coincidently) an appreciable improvement in President Obama’s political standing, along with growing diversity in the electorate reflected in an Electoral College map with an increasingly strong Democratic tilt. These constants boost the nominee of the incumbent party, but they are balanced by the difficult task of the incumbent party seeking a third consecutive term and the high percentage of voters looking for a change at a time when they feel the country is going in the wrong direction.

These constants would define the parameters of any election between a generic Democrat and a generic Republican, but because the Democratic nominee is a woman you can add to her challenges the considerable difficulty of attempting to become the first female president, and because she is a Clinton you can compound this with a longstanding narrative about ethics and judgment. Collectively, these factors explain why a share of the electorate is reluctant to pull the lever for her. But she is running against a candidate who has disqualified himself in many ways in the eyes of an even larger share of the electorate. This is why the contest long ago settled into a pattern where Clinton struggled to attain majority support but always held a lead. Nothing is likely to happen in the last ten days short of a Clinton indictment to change this structure (and let’s be clear—an indictment is not going to happen).

But there has been variation in the polling as well, with Clinton’s lead ranging from small to commanding. This difference is best explained by priming. When the narrative focuses on Trump, as it had for most of the past few weeks, it reminds voters what they don’t like about him and he loses the support of those who want to vote Republican but don’t like the nominee. When the news narrative focuses on Clinton it reminds weak supporters and undecided voters what they don’t like about her, and she loses their support. This is why the email story is such a problem for the Clinton campaign. It threatens to unhinge weak supporters and re-energize a demoralized Republican base.

In past episodes of negative priming, weak Clinton supporters moved to undecided or Gary Johnson. Trump did not pick up their support because they had already ruled him out, and they eventually returned to Clinton as the shifting news agenda reminded them of why they felt threatened by the prospect of a Trump presidency. At this point, though, time is running out and they are going to have to commit to a candidate or decide to sit it out. What they do could influence the final margins and down ballot races.

I will offer three possible scenarios in my next post.