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Did The FBI End Clinton’s Email Problems Or Make Them Worse?

In this week’s politics chat, we discuss the FBI’s announcement on Tuesday that it’s not recommending charges be brought against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while secretary of state. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): I’m back from vacation! Two weeks down the beach really did me some good. But we’re not here to talk about my newly beautifully bronzed skin. There was some news with the FBI and Hillary Clinton today. Before we get to how it might affect the election, someone give us a quick overview of what happened.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Bronzed or pinkened?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): You do look like a young Richard Burton.

micah: If I’m being honest, it’s more a reddish pink.

clare.malone: Synopsis: Hillary Clinton used a private email account that she shouldn’t have, along with her staff, and some of the stuff she sent and received was classified. Today, James Comey, the director of the FBI, recommended that the Justice Department not pursue criminal charges, but he had some pretty harsh words for Clinton’s conduct. He said Clinton’s email use was wrong, and polls show that most Americans agree with him.

natesilver: There was that language, “extremely careless,” which we’d be likely to hear in Donald Trump attack ads, if Trump were organized enough to run attack ads.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): This is the funniest damn thing about Trump. Clinton was basically called incompetent, and Trump could have run with it. Instead, he said the system is rigged. Of course, Comey is a Republican and has donated to Republican candidates in the past.

micah: But as far as non-indictments go, this is bad for Clinton, no? I mean, no one serious really thought she would be indicted, and Comey was very critical. It also made the whole scandal a little more corporeal — from The New York Times:


natesilver: That’s my view, basically, Micah. The chance of an indictment was extremely low. And conditional on there not being an indictment, this wasn’t a great outcome for Clinton. Comey was quite critical of Clinton and elevated the issue above the partisan fray a bit, in a way that could play well in attacks down the line.

harry: (If Trump can afford any ads.) Comey basically confirmed what many people already thought about Clinton: She’s untrustworthy. That’s a major reason she has such poor favorability numbers.

micah: Harry, where do her trust/honest numbers stand?

harry: A CBS News poll from mid-June found that just 33 percent of voters say she is “honest and trustworthy.” That isn’t good. The news that came from Comey on Tuesday doesn’t make me think those numbers will climb.

micah: That’s really bad.

clare.malone: Comey said this kind thing has in the past meant some sort of administrative discipline for people.

micah: But what Harry says suggests this is already baked in?

harry: The prediction markets, for what it’s worth, haven’t moved a lot today.

natesilver: Actually, Harry, prediction markets have moved TOWARD Clinton in the last 30 minutes or so, as people have had more time to digest the news. So they disagree with me and Micah, I guess. We see this as being neutral to slightly negative for Clinton, and the markets see it as being slightly positive.

clare.malone: Not a great outcome, but not a catastrophic one, given that like half the country already thinks she was, I don’t know, applying for Iranian citizenship or something in those emails? I kinda think all this does is confirm to Republicans/people who already don’t like her that she did something wrong. I don’t see it as blowing up. It’s been blowing up for months and months and months. At a steady rate.

natesilver: I should mention that Clinton’s gains in the prediction markets haven’t come at Trump’s expense, btw, but instead from Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, who were probably implausibly high to begin with.

micah: Maybe the markets thought there was a small chance of an indictment? That her gains came from Sanders and Biden suggests so.

natesilver: So maybe that’s all pretty reasonable. Markets priced in a small (I’d argue it should have been even smaller, but your mileage may vary) chance of an indictment, which would result in a Sanders or Biden nomination. There’s no indictment, so their chances disappear. Meanwhile, it’s fairly neutral for Clinton’s chances against Trump.

harry: I go back to what I wrote two months ago, Clare: “Americans’ Distaste For Both Trump And Clinton Is Record-Breaking.” Republicans should be walking away with this election. Instead, they nominated Trump, who does stuff like this.

micah: Clare, do you think this is the last shoe to drop?

clare.malone: At this point, we’re basically all lying on top of a pile of shoes, Micah. It’s hard to pull apart the inflection points in this scandal because it’s just been this sort of simmering thing for so long. Unfortunately for Clinton, people just think this is the kind of thing that’s in keeping with her character.

I’m not sure what James Comey said today makes a huge difference for the typical American voter … other than, there’s gonna be no charges. OK. Fine.

natesilver: But maybe Comey rises above the partisan fray a bit, and the person at the margin is more convinced by language like “extremely careless” than the way Republicans tend to talk about the scandal, where it gets blurred in with a million other things?

And, also, whether or not there’s any news here, it takes the focus off Trump and puts it on Clinton and, furthermore, on a negative issue for Clinton. For Clinton, this is a zugzwang election where she’d rather stay out of the way and let Trump make the news.

clare.malone: I mean, sure, it’s a bad news cycle for her and makes people forget for the moment that Trump’s account tweeted some anti-Semitic stuff over the weekend.

But I’m not sure that the Clinton campaign doesn’t just ride this out, take advantage of President Obama being on the trail with them for the first time, etc., to make some other news.

harry: The question is for how long. Trump has managed to dominate news cycles in ways we’ve never seen. At first, it was for good. Now, it is for bad. He’s probably seconds away from saying Comey is Satan or something.

natesilver: Yeah, and that’s probably the counterargument. I heard some pundits saying over the weekend that the timing of this was bad for Clinton because it stepped on what had been a fairly positive month for her. I actually think the timing is pretty good for Clinton because this is about to get stepped on by a whole host of other stories.

Namely, the VP selections in both parties, the conventions and maybe a Sanders endorsement.

clare.malone: Can I just say, for the record, that Comey gave an admirably dull, lawyerly presser? Like, lots of talk about “email slack space,” etc., etc.

The thing that most people won’t hear is the part where he basically sort of said, “They never had bad intent; they were just kinda idiotic about all this.” But intent, in the law, is very important — something that gets lost in the politics.

harry: I’ll just go back to the well here: People are going to hear what they want to hear, I think.

clare.malone: Yes. Agree.

natesilver: Again, I see this as a slight negative for Clinton. But I don’t get paid for guessing the impact of events like these. Instead, I get paid for waiting for the data. It does seem to me like Trump had some not-so-bad polls lately — he’s moved up slightly in our 2016 election forecast — and maybe that could continue for a week or so.

clare.malone: He’s coming from a fairly large deficit, though.

micah: So, Nate, I assume you’ve input this latest news into the model?

natesilver: Haha! No, the polls-only model takes a purely wait-and-see approach (waiting for polls). And the polls-plus model bakes in some information from economic data but is otherwise also wait-and-see. There are no manual adjustments whatsoever.

harry: (I too see Trump gaining some ground in the polls. But I’ve learned from this season that it’s better not to get out in front of the polls. In other words, I’ve been burnt too many times for trying to be too smart.)

clare.malone: We should really have a clinton-emails-polls-plus model, Nate. This seems like an oversight.

micah: Agreed!

natesilver: I know you guys are being sarcastic, but that’s exactly the point of keeping a model simple. If we have a Clinton email variable, should we also have a Trump University variable? Or a ground game variable? Or whatever else? It’s generally the case that even things that people think are pretty big deals tend to have small and/or unpredictable effects.

The other thing to be mindful of is that events like these can sometimes have a short-term effect, which then can fade.

The forecasts are designed to take a long-term focus, at least at this point in the campaign. If I’m Clinton, I’m not particularly excited about seeing what the tracking polls say at this point next week. On the other hand, I don’t care all that much because the VP announcements and conventions are going to reset everything anyway and the long-term trend has been pretty good for me so far. That logic is baked into the model as well.

micah: fwiw: Clicking around different news sites and the various cable channels, the story is being headlined/chyroned as “FBI suggests no charges against Clinton.” So maybe this will be, as the markets suggest, a positive for her. The CliffsNotes version of this news is better for her than the unabridged version.

clare.malone: I’m always relieved when I don’t get indicted.

harry: I got indicted for being too romantic last week.

micah: I’m not sure what that means, but I’m afraid to pick at it.

clare.malone: I think Nate’s got a point about the conventions/VP picks, etc., making a nice buffer for this news.

natesilver: Again, though, I think the subject matter is sometimes more important than the substance, at least for people who are paying only a little bit of attention. Is the chyron “Prosecutors: Politician XX Didn’t Beat His Wife” a positive for Politician XX? It depends.

clare.malone: The Bill Clinton/Loretta Lynch tarmac meeting will probably be spun into some kind of conspiracy theory ad, though.

natesilver: Right, yeah, and Trump is leaning into the conspiracy angle rather than the incompetence/security risk angle. Which maybe is a mistake. Because Trump thinks everything is a conspiracy, so that takes the halo off the very harsh and attack-ad-friendly words that Comey had for Clinton.

micah: So what should Trump do?

harry: If I were Trump, I’d say, “Look, Clinton claims that you’re taking a chance if you choose me because she is competent. This proves that she is incompetent. She acted with extreme carelessness.”

clare.malone: Or willful entitlement.

harry: It defeats the purpose of her candidacy.

clare.malone: I think the fact that she didn’t want to apologize for a long time is a damning thing — a lot of people think she thinks she’s above the fray. That kind of stuff strung together over time and hammered away at could give her that establishment patina that candidates are trying to get rid of.

harry: The Clintons have this ability to show that they believe their appearance doesn’t matter. You see that with Bill Clinton meeting with Lynch.

natesilver: In a weird way, Trump has in microcosm the issue that Clinton usually has with Trump: There are so many ways to attack that maybe you get flustered and aren’t particularly effective because you have trouble picking the right one. You can attack on email on grounds including trustworthiness, security risks, the system being rigged, Clinton being above the fray, etc. But if you do all four at once, it just seems like kind of a muddle.

clare.malone: Above-the-fray and untrustworthy seem to be the smartest attacks to me. If I were Paul Manafort, I’d be pushing stuff along those lines. The trouble is, conspiracy theories seem to be in the DNA of that campaign and the subreddit internet that follows it closely.

natesilver: See, I think the national security angle is more promising, in part because the untrustworthy stuff is pretty baked in. I agree, though, that the conspiracy angle is the least likely to persuade undecided voters.

harry: I think you have two worthy angles, and Trump is instead choosing a different one that would make Alex Jones proud.

micah: So basically the headline on the FBI’s very critical, non-indictment of Clinton is: This would be really bad for Clinton … if she weren’t running against Donald Trump.

natesilver: Hmm. It would be bad for Clinton if it came out of the blue. It didn’t, though. A lot of this is priced in, and we can argue whether today was slightly negative (my view) or slightly positive (betting markets’ view) for Clinton relative to expectations.

Now, it might also be true that Trump might be less poised to take advantage of this issue than some other candidates might be. But that isn’t his only problem.

clare.malone: Today just seems like yet another “Groundhog Day” moment of the 2016 presidential campaign. Clinton is in the middle of yet another bias-confirming swirl of events for those who think she’s not worthy of the office. This day almost feels just like going through the motions, the inevitable course of headlines, cable gab-offs. Rinse, repeat.

natesilver: Here’s the thing that gets lost, though. Right now, both candidates have a lot of work to do. National polls have the race about 43 percent for Clinton, 37 percent Trump, or something on that order. Does today give anybody a reason to vote for Clinton or vote for Trump? Obviously not, in my view. So at some point, Trump has to make the connection: Hillary is Crooked and here’s why you should vote for me.

harry: What Clinton essentially needs to do from here on out isn’t to convince people to vote for her, but to convince people not to vote for Trump. Trump needs to do both: convince people not to vote for Clinton and to vote for him. I’m not sure today will do that. It may do the former, but I’m not sure it does the latter. One could easily envision Clinton winning 47 percent to Trump’s 43 percent, with the rest going to the other candidates. Is it pretty? No. Does it get you to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Yes.

natesilver: She needs to do a bit of convincing. She probably isn’t going to win the election with 43 percent of the vote, even if there’s a large third-party vote. 47 percent? Sure, that might work.

Now, the good news for Clinton is that the polls that show her in a tighter race still show her with some room to grow among Sanders supporters.

So let’s see how Sanders reacts to this. It removes some of his ostensible justification for not conceding the race. But there’s still a fairly large group of Sanders voters who are saying they’re undecided or will vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, instead of Clinton. What happens with those voters will probably be more important in the end than anything that happened today.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.