Chris Cillizza, who recently took his blog Calvalcade of EMAILS! to CNN, asserts that he was merely a passive vessel transmitting things that happened:
This has become the favorite line of hacks who want to deny that their decision to give saturation coverage to a trivial psuedoscandal mattered: ARE YOU SAYING HILLARY CLINTON’S CAMPAIGN WAS PERFECT? Claiming that the media had absolutely no choice but to devote more coverage to Hillary Clinton’s email server management than all policy issues combined is another favorite. It’s embarrassing. But the messaging thing is extra special.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Hillary Clinton was an epically bad, unpopular candidate who ran a terrible campaign. She foolishly used a private email server while she was Secretary of State. She gave millions of dollars in speeches after leaving the State Department. She was a boring speaker with a mushy agenda. She was a hawkish Wall Street shill who failed to appeal to millennials. She lost the support of the white working class. Her campaign was a cespool of ego, power-mongering, and bad strategy. Let’s just assume all that.
If this is true, it was true for the entire year. Maybe longer. And yet, despite this epic horribleness, Clinton had a solid, steady lead over Trump the entire time. The only exception was a brief dip in July when Comey held his first presser to call Clinton “extremely careless” in her handling of emails. Whatever else you can say about Hillary Clinton, everyone knew about her speeches and her emails and her centrism and everything else all along. And yet, the public still preferred her by a steady 3-7 percentage points over Trump for the entire year.
But how much did Comey’s letter cost Clinton? Let’s review the voluminous evidence:
- Nate Silver estimates the Comey letter cost Clinton about 3 points.
- A panel survey from the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics suggests the Comey letter produced a net swing of 4 points toward Trump.
- Sam Wang estimates the Comey letter cost Clinton 4 points, though she may have made back some of that in the final days.
- Engagement Labs tracks “what people are talking about.” Immediately after the Comey letter, they registered a 17-point drop in favorable sentiment toward Clinton.
- Google searches for “Hillary’s email” spiked 300 percent after Comey’s letter.
- The tone of news coverage flipped enormously against Clinton after the Comey letter.
- A trio of researchers who looked at the evidence concluded that Comey’s letter was decisive, probably costing Clinton 3-4 points in the popular vote.
- Trump’s own analysts think the Comey letter was decisive.
- The Clinton campaign agrees that the Comey letter was decisive, and adds that Comey’s second letter hurt her too.1
I’m not sure how much clearer the evidence could be. Basically, Hillary Clinton was doing fine until October 28. Then the Comey letter cost her 2-4 percent of the popular vote. Without Comey she would have won comfortably — possibly by a landslide — even though the fundamentals predicted a close race.
That’s it. That’s the evidence. If you disagree that Comey was decisive, you need to account for two things. First, if the problem was something intrinsic to Clinton or her campaign, why was she so far ahead of Trump for the entire race? Second, if Comey wasn’t at fault, what plausibly accounts for Clinton’s huge and sudden change in fortune starting precisely on October 28?
And, as Pierce says, the magnitude of this effect really shouldn’t have been surprising:
The Comey story broke on a day in late October while I was driving through New Hampshire between a Trump event in Manchester and another one way out in the boonies, and I can tell you that the story blotted out the sun. By the time he got to the small mill town, everybody in the gym at the little Christian school knew so much about the Comey letter that Trump only had to make a head-fake toward it to get the crowd to bringing the roof down.
If the director of the FBI implying that one candidate is a crook less than two weeks before the election and generating a massive wave of negative coverage didn’t affect the outcome of a race in which multiple potential tipping point states were decided by less than 1%, what would? What we have here is the horse race actually mattering in a way that we can analyze more clearly than most horse race factors, but horse race pundits don’t want it to be discussed because it makes them look like irresponsible jerkoffs. But arguing that Clinton’s decision to use a private email server was hugely important but the media’s choice to cover it wasn’t is just self-serving derp all the way down.
To deny the voluminous evidence that the Comey letter swung the race, you have to claim that national polls were meaningless, although they were reasonably accurate as they generally are, and/or claim that nothing matters or all campaign counterfacutals are unkowable, because if this evidence isn’t strong enough no evidence about a campaign counterfactual ever could be. But you really can’t yadda-yadda the saturation coverage of Clinton’s email server and then toss out vague, unfalsifiable speculation about MESSAGING. Maybe Clinton could have won with different choices. Maybe a different Democratic candidate could have won. But we know journalists like Cillizza did an awful job and directly affected the race.