Jim Campbell: A new analysis in Polarized dispels election controversy

Overlooked “Unfavorability” Trends Raise Doubts that Comey Cost Clinton the Election

In her newly released What Happened and in interviews accompanying the book’s release, Hillary Clinton claims that former FBI Director James Comey’s late October re-opening of the investigation into the mishandling of national security emails was “the determining factor” in her 2016 presidential election loss. In the new afterword of the paperback edition of Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America, I report evidence indicating that Comey’s letter did not cause Clinton’s loss.The suspected Comey-effect is tested by examining changes in Gallup’s unfavorability ratings of Clinton and Trump. The data shows that the decline in Clinton’s poll lead over Trump in the last weeks of the campaign was not the result of voters becoming more negative about Clinton (as would be the case if they were moved by the Comey letter). It was the result of voters becoming less negative about Trump (a development with no plausible link to the Comey letter). Comey didn’t drive voters away from Clinton. Rather, “Never Trump” Republicans were grudgingly becoming “Reluctant Trump” voters.

This finding is consistent with the earlier finding of the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s (AAPOR) Ad Hoc Committee on 2016 Election Polling. The Committee found evidence that “Clinton’s support started to drop on October 24th or 25th,” perhaps even earlier. This was at least three or four days before Comey’s letter was released.

Read on for the relevant excerpt and details from the afterword of my forthcoming paperback edition of Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America:

In the closing weeks of the campaign, with what they saw as a Clinton victory looming darkly over the horizon, many disgruntled conservative hold-outs came back to the Republican column. As they rationalized or reconsidered their choice, unfavorable opinions about Trump among Republicans declined (about 7 points). Even so, about a fifth of Trump’s voters admitted that they still held an unfavorable view of him. More than a quarter of Trump’s voters said their candidate lacked the temperament to be president. For many, “Never Trump” had become “Reluctantly Trump.” They held their noses and cast their votes. Between Trump and Clinton, about 85% of conservative votes went to Trump. Along with sour views of national conditions, polarization had offset or overridden the grave reservations many conservatives had about a Trump vote.

Widespread and intense polarized views, across the public and between the parties, shaped the 2016 election. On one side of the spectrum, polarization compelled liberals to overlook Clinton’s scandals and deficiencies as a candidate as well as a sputtering economy and unstable international conditions. On the other side, dissatisfaction with national conditions and polarization compelled conservatives to vote for a candidate many thought lacked the rudimentary leadership qualities needed in a president. Non-ideological centrists again were caught in the middle–by ideology, by the candidates’ considerable shortcomings, and by generally dreary views of national conditions. Their vote split favored Clinton over Trump (52% to 40%, with 8% going to minor party candidates), close to its two-party division in 2012. The three components of the vote (polarization, the candidates, and national conditions) left voters closely enough divided to make an electoral vote majority for Trump possible.

Although the above explanation of the election is supported by the evidence and fits established theory, two other controversial explanations have gained some currency. They trace Trump’s surprising victory to Russia’s meddling in the election (by hacking Democratic emails and releasing them through Wikileaks) and FBI Director Comey’s late October letter, re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s mishandling of confidential national security emails. Some, including Clinton herself, contend Wikileaks and Comey’s letter caused the collapse of Clinton’s lead over Trump in the closing weeks of the campaign.

The evidence says otherwise. Contrary to the speculation, neither Wikileaks nor Comey’s letter had anything to do with the shriveling of Clinton’s lead. If either had been responsible, they would also have caused more voters to view Clinton negatively–but opinions about her did not grow more negative. Unfavorable opinions of Clinton were remarkably steady. From August to late September, Hillary Clinton’s unfavorables in Gallup polls averaged 55%. Her unfavorables in the Gallup poll completed on the day Comey released his letter (October 28) stood at 55%. In the exit polls, after Wikileaks and after Comey’s letter, her unfavorables were unchanged at 55%. Opinions about Hillary Clinton, a figure in the political spotlight for a quarter century, had long been highly and solidly polarized. Nothing Wikileaks revealed or Comey said was going to change minds about her at that late stage of the game.

The race tightened in the last weeks of the campaign because Trump’s unfavorables declined (by about 5 points). They declined as some conservatives and moderates with qualms about Trump came to the unpleasant realization that voting for Trump was the only possible way they could help prevent Clinton’s election. Some dealt with the dissonance of voting for a candidate they disliked by rationalizing, reassessing, or otherwise softening their views of Trump, trying to convince themselves that maybe “the lesser to two evils” was not really so awful after all. In voting, as in everything else, people tend to postpone unpleasant decisions as long as they can and make them as painless to themselves as they can.

The decay of Clinton’s October poll lead was not about Russian and Wikileaks meddling in the election and not about Comey’s letter. It was about polarization, in conjunction with dissatisfaction about national conditions, belatedly overriding the serious concerns many voters had about Donald Trump as a potential president. Trump’s candidacy put polarization to the test. His election testified to how powerful polarization has become. The highly polarized views of Americans and the highly polarized positions of the parties were critical to how voters perceived and responded to the candidates’ shortcomings and the nation’s problems.

James E. Campbell is UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. His books include The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National VoteThe Presidential Pulse of Congressional Elections, and Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.