Home / General / Comey (And the Media) Threw the Election to the Worst President Ever

Comey (And the Media) Threw the Election to the Worst President Ever



I’m not sure what even to say about the “press conference” held by a president-elect who is staggeringly unfit for office, who lies like most people breathe, who is hopelessly and proudly corrupt, whose command of policy detail is non-existent, who is aleady actively intimidating reporters. We have more than four more years of this.

One thing I’m not going to do, though, is to let the people and institutions responsible for this man — the second choice of the American people — assuming the presidency off the hook. Sean McElwee, Matt McDermott, and Will Jordan have a definitive analysis of the effect of James Comey’s highly prejudicial letter that actually contained no new information about a trivial pseudo-scandal that inexplicably (or, perhaps, all-too-explicably) dominated converge of the campaign. All of the available data — state polling, national polling, early voting vs. Election Day voting, the media coverage — confirms the effect of Comey’s letter. Read the whole thing, but the bottom line:

It’s true that there are other possible explanations for a late shift in vote intentions, but thus far there is no alternative explanation of merit. (The cyberhacks were surely important, but their effects would have been felt more steadily throughout the campaign.)

Instead, the evidence is clear, and consistent, regarding the Comey effect. The timing of the shift both at the state and national levels lines up very neatly with the publication of the letter, as does the predominance of the story in the media coverage from the final week of the campaign. With an unusually large number of undecided voters late in the campaign, the letter hugely increased the salience of what was the defining critique of Clinton during the campaign at its most critical moment.

The appeal of big-picture narratives about demographics, along with anecdotal evidence of big mistakes by the Clinton campaign in certain key states, makes it easy to point fingers. But looking specifically at the three “Rustbelt” blue states mentioned at the beginning of the article, no unifying picture emerges. Most stories mention Michigan, where Clinton didn’t campaign, rather than Pennsylvania, where she campaigned intensely. Indeed, these three Midwestern states (Wisconsin being the third) provide essentially an A/B/C test of different campaign strategies — and in each state she came up just short.

We do not intend to exculpate the Clinton campaign — in hindsight many decisions were flawed — but rather to note that the decisions were not abnormally bad (all campaigns make errors, and Trump’s made far more than others). However, the historic intervention into the election by James Comey means three major things:


Along with the Russian-linked theft and publication of emails from the Clinton campaign and the DNC, the Comey effect is of a different category than the usual investigative reporting or opposition research that campaigns have to contend with. Comey broke a decades-long norm of not intervening in presidential elections. The fact that his interference alone almost certainly swayed an election is indicative of a broader and disturbing breakdown of political norms.

Another fact worth highlighting: “During the final days of the election major newspapers ‘published 100 stories, 46 of which were on the front page, about or mentioning the emails.’ The tone and tenor of coverage shifted markedly against Clinton in the closing week of the campaign.” With the exception of the Billy Bush video Comey’s letter helped bury, the Comey letter received more intense scrutiny than any of Trump’s many actual scandals. And this happened despite the fact that it contained no information about a trivial pseudo-scandal and there was no chance that anything on Weiner’s laptop would change the conclusion that Clinton had not violated the law.

As I’ve said before, at this point to deny the effects of Comey’s interventions is essentially trooferism. There is no serious alternative explanation that can account for the data. The “durrrr, correlation is not causation, durrr” argument loses any plausibility when you consider that every Comey intervention caused a wave of negative media coverage about Clinton and was followed by a significant decline in national polls numbers. The “polls can’t account for Trump being a celebrity” response fails to explain why Election Day voters were more affected by Trump’s celebrity status than early voters although he didn’t become more famous in the interim (but people were treated to an obsessive wave of negative coverage about Clinton.) If Comey had not sent the letter on October 28, we can be as confident that Clinton would have won as we could ever be confident in such a counterfactual.

Comey’s interventions — or, to be more precise, grossly irresponsible media coverage of James Comey’s grossly unethical interventions — are not the sole factor that put Donald Trump in he White House because complex events have many causes. Did the Clinton campaign make mistakes? Certainly, although as McElwee et al. say concrete resource allocation arguments (like arguments that Jill Stein directly swung the election) inevitably founder in Pennsylvania. But every campaign, winning and losing, makes mistakes. Not every election involves the FBI putting a thumb on the scale. This is a major constitutional crisis, and the idea that we should ignore is simply absurd; indeed, a major part of the problem, given the ability of partisan hacks like Comey to cultivate a reputation as nonpartisan straight-shooters of the utmost integritude and use this to advance Republican interests.

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