A couple people flagged this in comments, but here’s another important finding from the Shorenstein Center’s study of the media’s performance covering the 2016 election (Tl; dr: it was the Hindenburg crashing into the Titanic while an atomic bomb was detonated in each):
The Shorenstein Center has published its analysis of 2016 election coverage, and the main takeaway is that it was very, very negative—but not uniformly negative. For most of the campaign, Donald Trump’s coverage was more negative than Hillary Clinton’s, but that suddenly turned around after James Comey’s letter about Clinton’s email was released. In the final two weeks of the campaign, more than a third of Clinton’s coverage was devoted to scandals. At the same time, coverage of Trump turned suddenly less negative.
The result is that during the crucial closing stretch of the campaign, Clinton’s coverage was more negative than Trump’s. It’s hard to look at this and not conclude that Comey’s letter was the key turning point that made Donald Trump president.
Well, duh. It’s worth noting as well that even before Comey’s coup de grace once you account for Clinton’s lead in the horserace the media was pretty much treating Trump’s unprecedented, norm-shattering parade of instances of what would disqualifying conduct for any other candidate as the equivalent of two trivial Clinton pseudo-scandals. (Note as well that the two big Clinton “scandals” for the media during the campaign were EMAILS! and DONORS ASK CLINTON FOUNDATION FOR FAVORS AND DON’T GET THEM BUT TROUBLING QUESTIONS!, not the big money speeches. Apologists for the media and Comey like to focus on the speeches because they really did constitute dumb and objectionable behavior even they wouldn’t rank in the top 1,000 Donald Trump scandals. But the speeches were not a big deal to elite journalists, most of whom after all are on the “America’s underachieving elites shower each other with money to deliver platitudes” gravy train or aspire to be.) It was a case of terrible coverage getting even worse rather than fair coverage suddenly turning unfair.
Anyway, to summarize, the evidence that the Comey letter and the Kardashian-sisters-land-on-Mars quantity and Hillary Clinton-embezzled-money-from-the-local-food-bank-and-funneled-it-to-ISIS quality coverage that ensured swung the election is as strong as any such evidence could possibly be:
- Especially in battleground states, late-breaking voters broke big for Trump. Note that during this time Hillary Clinton did not become more NEOLIBERAL, the economic situation in Wisconsin and Iowa did not get worse, and Donald Trump did not become more famous.
- The margin that put Trump in the White House is 80,000 votes. So not all, or even most, of this late 5-point shift towards Trump has to have been directly caused by the coverage of the Comey letter for it to have been decisive.
- Late coverage of the campaign was demonstrably dominated by negative coverage of Hillary Clinton’s EMAILS!, and this coverage strongly amplified the CROOKED HILLARY narrative Trump pushed throughout the campaign.
- This shift in coverage also had the effect of drawing focus away from Trump’s countless examples of egregious misconduct, further relatively normalizing him as a candidate and making the election more like the fundamentals-and-partisanship election he needed to make the election close enough for the Slave Power to win one more time.
- We’re not dealing with a single event either. Every previous time Comey opened his yap and caused a chicken-screwing orgy on the part of the media, Clinton’s support discernibly declined.
- But what about the argument that none of this evidence means anything because 2016 showed that polls were worthless? The problem is that this is false. The national polls were basically accurate — Clinton winning by two points with polls showing Clinton +3/4 is a normal deviation. The state polls were less accurate, but 1)state polls are always by their nature less accurate in general, and 2)part of the reason they were less accurate is that many states were under-polled late and hence failed to catch the late break towards Trump.
- Obligatory note that complex events have multiple causes and responsibility is joint. To the argument that we should basically give the media and Comey a pass because going forward we need to focus on the fact that Hillary Clinton sucks, it seems worth observing that Hillary Clinton will not be the Democratic candidate for president again and the 2016 campaign will not ever be run again, but the media and the national surveillance state aren’t going anywhere.
Yes, yes, as many armchair social scientists will observe, correlation does not prove causation and counterfactuals cannot be proven to an absolute certainty. But the evidence for the “coverage of the Comey letter threw the election” is much stronger than the evidence for the counterfactual that “the Comey letter was irrelevant,” and the theoretical argument for the former is much stronger too. Late-breaking voters decided the election, the late stages of the campaign were dominated by negative coverage of Hillary Clinton, but we’re supposed to believe that this negative coverage had no meaningful effect? Sure. And of course in roughly 99% of cases the apologists and hand-wavers are not saying “we should not make any attempt to understand election outcomes because social science rarely produces completely unassailable conclusions” but rather are saying “we should ignore Comey to focus on Hillary Clinton’s messaging and the fact that Al Gore didn’t use Bill Clinton enough.”
Nope, Comey’s grossly inappropriate letter and the media’s grossly irresponsible coverage of the letter almost certainly swung the election. This would be defensible even so if it involved critical new information about serious misconduct by Hillary Clinton. But in fact the letter contained no meaningful information about a trivial pseudo-scandal that had already been over-covered by a factor of about six trillion. Really, heckuva job.