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Chat: How Much Damage Has The Email Scandal Done To Hillary Clinton?

Our question for this week’s politics Slack chat is probably one Joe Biden and his advisers are mulling over. As always, the transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): How much damage has the e-mail controversy done to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy? And I mean both her primary and general election prospects, but let’s start with the primary. Her polls:

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natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Oh god — I’ve been trying to avoid this question for six months. Because I think it’s really hard to answer.

hjenten-heynawl (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I mean, let’s be real here: Clinton’s primary numbers have dropped. The horse-race numbers, as the chart indicates, show her declining. But at the same time, her favorability numbers are still pretty darn solid. And she is still cruising in the endorsement primary. No one is even close to her there, and I generally believe (based upon prior primaries) that is most predictive.

micah: Extra points to Harry for plugging our endorsement tracker.

natesilver: Wait — Harry didn’t answer the question.

hjenten-heynawl: Harry says: damage minimal in primary.

faraic (Farai Chideya, senior writer): The email controversy actually splits two ways among some people I’ve spoken with. Some likely Democratic voters view her as untrustworthy; others view her as take-no-prisoners (and no s**t). There are several nested questions with the emails. 1. How important was it that she used her own servers? (i.e., the question of security, federal policy, propriety.) 2. How has she disclosed or not disclosed the information — (the “drip, drip, drip”) of the decisions she made? And 3. What possible cross-pollination/cross-contamination of her role as secretary of state and private/Clinton Foundation life do the emails show? On that last point: here.

micah: Yeah, part of Clinton’s problem is how layered this story is. There’s a lot for opponents to play with.

hjenten-heynawl: Let’s just look at the fact that Gallup has her net favorable at +53 among Democrats. That’s better than it was eight years ago in Gallup polling (+50). We obviously don’t know how it would look without the email scandal. But in terms of primary voters’ perceptions of her, she’s doing just as well. Which shouldn’t be surprising given that she is pretty much universally known.

micah: But, Harry, haven’t her favorables gone down?

hjenten-heynawl: This year? Sure — as she hit the campaign trail and stopped being a diplomat and started becoming a politician again. But over the last few months, Gallup has her stable.

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micah: hmmm

natesilver: hmmm

hjenten-heynawl: That is among Democrats.

natesilver: On the one hand, it seems clear that the press cherry-picks bad polls for Clinton. And, furthermore, that it underappreciates how her favorability ratings have not deteriorated much with Democrats. But I’m not sure that I buy that they haven’t declined. It seems clear that they have. Even among Democrats.

hjenten-heynawl: But the question for this chat is: “Has the email scandal hurt Clinton’s chances?”

micah: (Nate still hasn’t answered that.)

natesilver: Her numbers are down. It’s a question of cause and effect. Or not even cause and effect, exactly, but what her numbers would be in a world where she didn’t have a private email server.

faraic: Articles like this one — a recent update on questions about when and how she used the server — get back to the question of whether this is a slow-drip that will hurt or one that will pass. Is it OK for me to say, “I don’t know”? I do think, in general, that she is built to withstand this type of scrutiny.

natesilver: Getting sustained negative media coverage can matter, especially when it’s reinforced by declining polls, even if voters don’t care that much about the details of the scandal itself. We’re at a phase of the election where the tone of media coverage is just about at its most important. Voters are tuning in, but only along the margins; they aren’t getting a comprehensive picture.

But can I repeat my question from before? What would her numbers be now in a world where she didn’t have a private email server?

hjenten-heynawl: I think we know the answer to this question. Knowing nothing else — nothing else — I’d have assumed she would fall back to her 2008 numbers, and those numbers have been fairly stable when she’s been in the political arena.

faraic: Nate, I’d say her favorability numbers would be 5-10 points higher — not so much from the email scandal itself but the sense of a prolonged “drip, drip” and the fatigue it provokes.

natesilver: Maybe. Or maybe the press would be focusing on the Clinton Foundation instead? Or her paid speeches? Or doing more digging into other (real or alleged) scandals?

hjenten-heynawl: Press needs a story … always does.

natesilver: So a few years ago, I developed a five-pronged “test” for whether a scandal would resonate:

  1. Can the scandal be reduced to a one-sentence sound bite (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence sound bite)?
  2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?
  3. Does the scandal reify/reinforce/“prove” a core negative perception about the candidate, particularly one that had henceforth been difficult to articulate (but not one that has become so entrenched that little further damage can be done)?
  4. Can the scandal readily be employed by the opposition, without their looking hypocritical/petty/politically incorrect, risking retribution, or giving life to a damaging narrative?
  5. Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?

natesilver: It’s not especially empirical — just a way to focus the discussion a bit.

The first question is whether the scandal can be explained in a one-sentence sound bite. And I don’t think the email scandal does particularly well by that test. “Clinton maintained a private email server” is not all that sexy unto itself.

“Clinton threatened national security and/or broke the law by maintaining a private email server” is better, but less self-evident.

That’s part of why I’ve been skeptical that the details of the scandal mattered all that much to voters. It doesn’t have much sex appeal.

However.

Some of the other parts of the five-pronged test would argue for the scandal being important. In particular, No. 3: “Does the scandal reify/reinforce/‘prove’ a core negative perception about the candidate?” Also No. 2: “Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?” It makes it harder for Clinton to talk about her time as secretary of state in a positive light, which could otherwise be a real strength for her.

faraic: Devil’s advocate: Couldn’t you say the sound bite is “Hillary Rodham Clinton kept classified information improperly.” Well, that’s not sexy either but … it’s an argument.

natesilver: It’s not “the president had sex with a White House intern” exactly.

faraic: Speaking of sex — I’m really going to digress here. This is a video of Lena Dunham (“Girls”) joking with Clinton about Lenny Kravitz’s “wardrobe malfunction” in an effort to be “likable.” Or millennial-friendly. It’s actually quite funny.

hjenten-heynawl: I don’t play these analyses games too well, but here’s what I do know: What I had generally expected heading into the campaign is that Clinton’s numbers would come back to where they were in 2008. Her favorable ratings have been a bit worse, but she is polling at the same level as the generic Republican (Jeb Bush), which matches up with what you’d expect given the generic presidential ballot and Obama’s approval rating.

natesilver: The email scandal could also matter if it motivates Biden to enter. Even if that reflects an overreaction on Biden’s behalf. He has to make a decision in an environment of uncertainty.

faraic: I don’t believe Biden is going in.

natesilver: I’m skeptical that Biden will run too, but it would be really helpful to Clinton right now to have a few weeks without a further revelation in the email story. And the “drip, drip, drip” nature of the story has made that difficult.

That might be a sixth prong we’ll need to add to the acid test we described earlier: Does the scandal continue to produce news, or is it one-hit-and-you’re-done, in a way that allows you to apologize and move on? (The American public can be real softies when politicians apologize for misbehavior.)

micah: OK, let’s say Clinton makes it out of the primary: Does the email stuff have a different effect in the context of a general election?

faraic: In a general election, Clinton will get the full mud-cannon blast of attacks — past and present, real and completely made up. But unlike, say, John Kerry, she may well be equipped to deal with both, Clinton’s equivalent of Kerry’s Swiftboat attack and questions that are more on-target.

I also think the email’s longest-lasting attack value would be to undermine her tenure as secretary of state.

natesilver: In a very big picture sense: News moves the polls less in the context of a general election. Voters already have a lot of information to weigh. And not that many of them are up for grabs. There’s reasonably strong reversion to the mean on the basis of the “fundamentals.” On the other hand, general elections tend to be closer than nomination races, so small changes in public opinion can potentially matter more.

hjenten-heynawl: I’m just thinking to myself, “Does this thing have the legs to go another one year and one month?”

faraic: Do we?

hjenten-heynawl: Because Clinton is likely winning this primary, and if she does, then it’s the general that matters

natesilver: I agree that if there were zero further news on the email scandal between now and next November, it might not matter very much at all by next year. Could be something like the Jeremiah Wright thing, which seemed like a HUGE deal at the time but probably didn’t hurt Obama much in the end. Once we get to the general-election phase of the campaign — if she makes it that far — we’ll see Clinton fighting back a little bit more. For one thing, she’ll have more reflexive support from Democratic elites and Democratic-leaning media outlets, some of whom are rooting for Sanders right now.

We could also see a phenomenon where Republicans are piling on Clinton in every which way, which could increase the amount of sympathy for her. I think the GOP has been pretty smart about not overplaying its hand with the email scandal so far, BTW.

tl;dr: The dynamics are pretty different in the general election than in the primaries.

faraic: Clinton certainly will not live or die politically by the email issue. But it’s definitely taking focus from her campaign. Though not as much as the Bush campaign is grappling with remaining out of the top three candidate tier …

natesilver: Yeah, every single one of the Republican candidates would trade places with Clinton right now. At least in terms of their chances of winning their party’s nomination.

hjenten-heynawl: Here’s my general thought: I think the email scandal has brought Clinton’s numbers down somewhat. It has certainly reminded the public of Clinton’s minuses faster than may have happened otherwise. But Clinton has plenty of baggage. She’s been in the public eye for 25 years. The party hasn’t abandoned her. And in this day and age of polarized politics, it would take something truly special for Clinton to be anything but a generic Democrat.

faraic: Agreed for the most part — but not “generic.” Establishment. IMHO.

natesilver: Some of the risk to Clinton is if there IS another shoe to drop. Let’s say there’s some midlevel scandal that ordinarily wouldn’t have all that much resonance, but it’s enough to get five or six news cycles’ worth of negative headlines for Clinton. In the current environment, that might be enough to trigger some panic among Democratic elites.

hjenten-heynawl: Sure, I mean if another shoe drops. … But this has been the summer of bad news for Clinton, and she is still ahead. What’s going to be the next bad news cycle? It turns out that her dislike of the amount of calories in pumpkin spice lattes hasn’t made her stop drinking them after all?

faraic: I think some of the Democratic elites are annoyed, but panic is far from the emotional state.

natesilver: Maybe it’s not so linear though, Harry?

hjenten-heynawl: You think there’s a cliff? There could be — where it just becomes too much.

natesilver: The primary is a consensus-building process, and consensus-building processes are full of feedback loops and often nonlinear. (Wow. That was a geeky sentence.)

micah: That was very Malcolm Gladwell-y. (Friend of the site.)

faraic: I think the correct form is “Gladwellian” … and the consensus candidate is still Clinton.

hjenten-heynawl: Right. Who is the consensus candidate here, though, besides Clinton?

natesilver: I know where you’re going with that: The primary could be thrown into disarray — and Clinton could wind up the winner anyway.

micah: So let’s consider the extreme case: What do you think the story would have to become for the email stuff to force Clinton out of the race?

faraic: At this point, I’m assuming all the data on the server has been secured. I may be wrong. But I think the likeliest right hook would come from something that seemed like an impropriety for the secretary of state to be doing — influence trading, for example — and not the security of the data itself.

That’s a hypothetical, BTW.

natesilver: If there’s a Sony-style hack in which highly sensitive national security information from Clinton’s email gets revealed publicly somehow, she’s presumably toast. I have no idea whether the chances of that are 0.2 percent or 2 percent or 20 percent.

hjenten-heynawl: I can only say that more needs to come out. This alone won’t do it.

micah: To close, Nate, answer the question that we started with: “How much damage has the e-mail controversy done to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy?”

natesilver: It’s hard to know. Very probably not as much as the media consensus holds, especially if you account for the fact that they’d undoubtedly find other negative Clinton stories to write about. The incentives to create a dramatic Democratic race are really high.

However, I don’t think Clinton is invincible.

Check our our live coverage of the first Democratic Debate.

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

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

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s managing editor.

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