Comey ‘probably cost Clinton the election’

An analysis of polls and media coverage by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight makes a strong case in support of the claim that The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton The Election

It may well have been the final nail in a poor campaign. Trumps campaign was also poor but it succeeded where it mattered, with the help of Comey.

But Silver also makes a strong case for the influence of the media and their denials of the impact they have.

And this applies to New Zealand as well, on a smaller scale.

Hillary Clinton would probably be president if FBI Director James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28. The letter, which said the FBI had “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into the private email server that Clinton used as secretary of state, upended the news cycle and soon halved Clinton’s lead in the polls, imperiling her position in the Electoral College.

The letter isn’t the only reason that Clinton lost. It does not excuse every decision the Clinton campaign made. Other factors may have played a larger role in her defeat…

But the effect of those factors — say, Clinton’s decision to give paid speeches to investment banks, or her messaging on pocket-book issues, or the role that her gender played in the campaign — is hard to measure.

The impact of Comey’s letter is comparatively easy to quantify, by contrast. At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by 3 or 4 percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona. At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so.

Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.

And yet, from almost the moment that Trump won the White House, many mainstream journalists have been in denial about the impact of Comey’s letter.

It hasn’t just been journalists who have been in denial about the effect of Comey’s letter. Trump chooses to ignore it and promote his own greatness, but that is what he does.

Many Trump supporters seem to want to think he won simply on merit and don’t want to consider he wasn’t that great, he just ended up being slightly less ungreat than Clinton in a few key states.

Why would the media want to ‘forget’ about the Comey letter effect?

The motivation for this seems fairly clear: If Comey’s letter altered the outcome of the election, the media may have some responsibility for the result.

The media were as poor throughout the campaign as the Clinton and Trump campaigns, and as with other issues they over-emphasised the Comey letter, helping make it a game changer. The whole campaign debacle was an appalling advertisement for democracy.

One can believe that the Comey letter cost Clinton the election without thinking that the media cost her the election — it was an urgent story that any newsroom had to cover.

But if the Comey letter had a decisive effect and the story was mishandled by the press — given a disproportionate amount of attention relative to its substantive importance, often with coverage that jumped to conclusions before the facts of the case were clear — the media needs to grapple with how it approached the story.

Is the media likely to examine and grapple with how it handled the election? That’s probably as likely as Clinton examining and accepting her own shortcomings, or as likely as Trump becoming modest about his win and his presidency.

If I were advising a future candidate on what to learn from 2016, I’d tell him or her to mostly forget about the Comey letter and focus on the factors that were within the control of Clinton and Trump. That’s not my purpose here. Instead, it’s to get at the truth — to figure out the real story of the election.

The real story is that the Comey letter had a fairly large and measurable impact, probably enough to cost Clinton the election. It wasn’t the only thing that mattered, and it might not have been the most important. But the media is still largely in denial about how much of an effect it had.

That applies to the whole campaign.

Modern media plays an integral part in elections. They are a major influence on what voters learn about candidates.

And media has moved far to far from being reporters, investigators and informers, and they have become far too much political activists and promoters.

This is not just true of the US.

In New Zealand the media have become tools of political campaigns because it generates headlines and stories, and some in media have become virtual political activists, their egos driving their coverage more than balance and perspective.

This is likely to continue because the media are excused by the majority, those who win, those who get favourable outcomes, those in power, in part due to the campaign influence of media.

The media probably cost Clinton the election as much as the Comey letter did, but the media had also contributed significantly to Clinton – and Trump – being the eventual candidates. Two very flawed candidates in a very flawed political system dominated by a very flawed media.

Social media has a growing influence, but in large part that is due to the deficiencies of the ‘mainstream’ media.


  1. Conspiratoor

     /  May 5, 2017

    She digs her own grave, jumps in and screams its not my fault. Where was comey and Ivan in 2008 when she loses to an unknown black guy with a dodgy past and Islamic sympathies
    Take out the mexicali norte, homosexuals and minorities and she lost by millions. She hitched the deplorable tag to middle america. Constantly gimped up, feeble body, seizures on camera and has to be carried to her car. She leaves good men to die and sells uranium to russia.
    But I won the popular vote! Well done hillers, you get the participation prize. Now get off the stage

  2. High Flying Duck

     /  May 5, 2017

    Interesting analysis that seems to completely ignore the coverage of Trump which was universally disparaging and would also have had an impact.
    To sheet it in to “this event was easy to quantify so it is the reason” is patently absurd.
    The campaign had a large number of false narratives and hyper-partisan coverage of both sides, all of which would have had an effect.
    Perhaps it is time to move on.

    • “the coverage of Trump which was universally disparaging and would also have had an impact”

      No so from Fox and Breitbart and a bunch of other social media sites.

      And while other media were critical of Trump they gave him exactly what he wanted – publicity.

      • High Flying Duck

         /  May 5, 2017

        So Trump benefited from negative coverage while Clinton was hurt by it?

        He sounds like quite the chameleon does this Trump fellow.

        The fact is there were thousands of stories covering a number of topics, and many of them were emotive and over pumped.

        Trump and Russia was a strong narrative during the campaign and after it – and this is a storyline directly promoted by the Democrats to the media. Did this “swing the vote by 5-6 points or at a minimum just over 1?”

        Where is the analysis by Nate?

        He has fallen into the trap that all MSM and many pollsters in the US fell into – thinking that Clinton campaigned in a vacuum. The whole story above is what Clinton did and what happened to Clinton.

        If they paused and reflected that there were actually two candidates and that Trump won as much as Clinton lost – with better voter targeting in key states being critical they may get closer to the true reasons for the election result.

        Trump had a core of voters who reveled in his anti-establishment and non-political unfiltered behaviour, but there is no way this was sufficient to win the election.

        As per the last comment, to try to sheet down the result to one event when there was an 18 month campaign leading up to the Comey letter is categorically absurd and simply headline grabbing scape-goating.

        • Gezza

           /  May 5, 2017

          Trump actually benefitted from *coverage* full stop.
          Especially tv coverage. The tv news was all about Trump. Didn’t really matter whether it was positive or negative. He was constantly in the public eye. Sometimes all they did was show a Trump rally speech or interview in full, and then got accused of negative coverage lol.

          Seemed like you hardly ever saw Clinton, & when you did, she sounded dull & uninspiring, vague on any policy or key objectives for administration, entitled, eventually smug, & her crowds, in comparison with the thousands of deplorables attending Trump’s travelling circus, were always embarrassingly small.

          Distaste for Trump probably factored in a lot of the earlier polls in Clinton’s favour, but the cumulative effect of the Comey letter, the wikileaks material, & the constant barrage of Trump &/or other parties’ pumping out the Benghazi hearings / can’t remember, email server, Wall Street closed door speeches etc eventually tipped the balance to Trump in enough states to count.

          Trump worked hard to swing the states – he worked harder than her. He both bullshitted & targeted key working class concerns better, & more consistently, used the old saw that if you repeat something outrageous often enough people will eventually believe it. And he banked on the old adage that no publicity is bad publicity being true – something that thousands of former non-entity celebrities know.

          • High Flying Duck

             /  May 5, 2017

            I have to disagree with you there Gez.

            The overseas coverage was certainly all Trump. But domestically, although Trump got more news coverage it wasn’t by a huge margin.

            Also it must be remembered that the Clinton campaign spent almost double the amount Trump’s did (well over $500m more).
            You would have to assume most of the Clinton spending would have found some positives about her somewhere…

            Clinton got plenty of coverage – it’s just that rather like Andrew Little, the more people saw of Hilary the less they liked her.

            To paraphrase your comment – Trump campaigned better full stop.
            And Clinton suffered from death by a thousand cuts.

            It is amusing that they are focusing on pretty much the one accusation which came to nothing as the reason for failure and ignoring the litany of accusations which cataloged actual wrongdoings which obviously could not have been the reason.

            Trump gave the right message (even if it was a BS message) to the right people while Hilary coasted.

          • Gezza

             /  May 5, 2017

            The amount the Clinton campaign spent on PR turned out to be irrelevant virtually through the whole campaign HFD. Trump’s style was often outrageous & provocative & needed constant fact-checking. He didn’t need to buy media coverage. All he had to do was tweet & show up. The media couldn’t resist him, however they tried to portray him. He took risks. They paid off.

            • High Flying Duck

               /  May 5, 2017

              I completely agree with that. Which brings me back to: why does the analysis of Clinton’s loss focus on very narrow things-that-happened-to Clinton issues rather than the multitude of actual reasons why she lost to the first ever Orange president with yuuuuge hair.

            • Gezza

               /  May 5, 2017

              No idea. And tbh I think hardly anyone cares. The few that do nobody’s really listening to. It’s history.

  3. David

     /  May 5, 2017

    So it wasnt that the Dems wanted Hilary annointed, that she didnt even bother to visit Ohio, Wisconsin etc, she didnt collapse, wasnt an absolutely awful candidate and the big one is that she had an email server in her basement which broke the law or that her husband met the attorney general on a private plane and there was no prosecution. Nope it was Russia and Comey

    • You’re ignoring what Silver says (it sounds like you didn’t read it) – he didn’t mention Russia as a factor, and he did say clearly there many contributory factors. And he says that Comey was probably a factor but one that just tipped things over for her.

      • MaureenW

         /  May 5, 2017

        Nate Silver lost his form for political forecasting in the 2016 election, he needs to justify why he was so wrong also.

        • He wasn’t so wrong. He always kept putting qualifiers on statistical predictions.

          That final prediction wasn’t far off the mark on popular vote.

          Margins and probabilities included a 1 in 4 chance of Trump winning.

          And polls and pollsters can only look backwards, not forwards to actual elections.

          Many people don’t understand polling.

          • High Flying Duck

             /  May 5, 2017

            Nate Silver is a very good pollster, but he has issued several mea culpa’s that he ignored the statistics and acted like a pundit on many occasions and much of his company’s forcasting on trump was speculative rather than data driven:

            “…Without having a model, I found, I was subject to a lot of the same biases as the pundits I usually criticize. In particular, I got anchored on my initial forecast and was slow to update my priors in the face of new data. And I found myself selectively interpreting the evidence and engaging in some lazy reasoning.”

            Many people think the polls can effect outcomes as well because people don’t like to back a loser – which is what every poll suggested Trump would be.

            In a campaign of so many twists and turns, to say

            – this is measurable
            – It is only measurable if you make assumptions about cause and effect on the polls of this event; but
            – despite this, if i make a small assumption it still works
            – So it can be fingered as a definitive reason for losing

            Is drawing a very long bow.

            As Conspiratoor notes – Clinton’s support in battleground states didn’t move in line with the national polls when the letter came out.

            • Gezza

               /  May 5, 2017

              I’ve given up participating in phone polls. I politely declined for the last two phone polls. That was largely because I’ve accepted Al’s & a few others’ comments on this blog that most polls done here seem to be statistically worthless. Also because the last one didn’t identify the party they said they were contracted to. And mainly because the last one I did say, “10 minutes? Aww, go on then … ” to asked some questions about the economy, and they were so simplistic, and I’m not an economist, and economists disagree, and the standard measure(s) for the success of an economy have little to with the overall health of our society, that I felt the survey wasn’t finding out the things I wanted to know.

      • Conspiratoor

         /  May 5, 2017

        The jurys still out whether comey was a deal breaker. Her support in key battleground States like Wisconsin never changed before and after. By the way, ‘Shattered’ is a great read

  4. Bill Brown

     /  May 5, 2017

    Hillary was simply a step to far. Clearly it’s one hell of a step as they went with the Donald instead – I can’t wait for the new series of House of Cards to start in 3 weeks as Mrs Underwood is 100% Hillary ! Frightening

  5. Nelly Smickers

     /  May 5, 2017

    One can *only imagine* what might have happened had Comey released this……

  6. David

     /  May 5, 2017

    “Comey ‘probably cost Clinton the election’”

    errr, perhaps if Clinton hadn’t put herself in a position where Corney needed to be involved, she might have won the election.

  7. Traveller

     /  May 5, 2017

    Nothing changes the fact she failed to campaign adequately in the key swing electorates. She won the popular vote and lost the electorates concerned. Put in and Coney never caused that.

  8. Blazer

     /  May 5, 2017

    ‘ Corney ‘….’Coney ‘….’ Comey ‘