A week ago, the US election looked to be over. Hillary Clinton was riding so high in the polls after a disastrous series of gaffes by Donald Trump that few could conceive of a Republican path to victory on 8 November. Friday’s shock intervention by the FBI may not be enough to change that outcome on its own, but it has certainly set political imaginations running wild.
The worry for Democrats is that fresh inquiries regarding Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state come at a difficult time. Not only is it hard to prove a negative and re-establish her innocence with barely a week to go until the election, but the letter to congressional officials from director James Comey capped a tricky run of news that was already making a sizable dent in her polling lead.
Momentum for Trump began to recover first thanks to another set of emails, the contents of which perhaps explain why the Clintons risked so much to try to retain control of her electronic communications in the first place. Released by WikiLeaks, a factor that US intelligence agencies have blamed on Russian hackers, these emails to and from campaign chairman John Podesta have been trickling out for weeks, with mostly embarrassing rather than damaging content.
That changed on Wednesday with the release of a report that appeared to confirm just how much the Clinton family has blurred the boundaries between its business, charitable and political interests. Though almost all of the new information related to Bill rather than Hillary, it gave Trump supporters fresh ammunition at a moment when they were desperate to shift attention from their candidate’s own scandals over taxes and alleged inappropriate behaviour towards women.
In an election that many pollsters describe as an unpopularity contest, it does not take much to swing the mood of independent voters. By Friday, the combination of no news from Trump and bad news from Clinton had halved her average leadin the polls since the last presidential debate.
“When the attention was on Trump, Clinton was winning. Now, the attention is on Clinton,” said political consultant Frank Luntz, who has predicted the winner in 2016 will be the campaign that keeps the focus on its opponent.
Sunday’s average lead for Clinton in nation
But among Democrats, a cause for concern – if not yet panic – is that very few polls published so far were carried out after news broke about the FBI and the emails.
One reputable survey that got close, an ABC News-Washington Post tracking poll released on Sunday, showed just a one-point overall lead for Clinton. It asked some voters on Friday evening what they thought and found the news had mostly hardened existing opinions but could also play a role at the margins.
“About a third of likely voters say they are less likely to support Clinton given FBI director James Comey’s disclosure,” said pollster Gary Langer. “Given other considerations, 63% say it makes no difference.”
Only 7% of Clinton supporters felt it would make any difference, but this rises “much higher among groups already predisposed not to vote for her”, the poll found.
“The potential for a pullback in motivation of Clinton supporters, or further resurgence among Trump’s, may cause concern in the Clinton camp – especially because this dynamic already was under way,” Langer added. “Intention to vote has grown in Trump support groups in the past week as the intensity of criticisms about him has ebbed.”
The notion that the FBI may not change any minds but will bolster opinion, and thus perhaps turnout, was also supported in a poll of voters in 13 battleground states. This CBS poll showed just 5% of Democrats said the issue might make them less likely to support Clinton, compared with more than a quarter of registered Republicans.
This risk also helps explain the ferocity of Democratic calls for the FBI to urgently exonerate Clinton.
Many loyalists are convinced the latest trove of emails, discovered on equipment shared by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband Anthony Weiner, are an irrelevance.
Even if some show more classified information passed its way through the private server, it should not change the FBI’s earlier decision that a criminal charge would be unfair without evidence of intent or coverup.
But so long as this is not categorically established, there may be a nagging doubt in some minds that the FBI suspects otherwise. Not everyone will be prepared to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt. Some studies have shown just 11% of voters describe Clinton as “honest and trustworthy”, lower even than Trump’s score of 16%.
While it may not be enough to the tip the balance, running for president while facing potential criminal investigation is never a good look.