Between Obamacare’s rising premiums and the revelations of access-peddling by a top aide at the Clinton Foundation, this hasn’t been a good week for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But the news — announced Friday afternoon — that the FBI would be again looking into the private email server Clinton used as secretary of state takes her bad week into truly terrible territory.
Here’s what we know (and it’s, admittedly, not all that much): The FBI came across emails related to Clinton’s server as part of an “unrelated investigation,” according to a letter sent by Director James B. Comey to congressional leaders Friday. “I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation,” Comey wrote.
Here’s what we don’t: Is this simply box-checking because of a handful of emails that were recently found? Or is this a re-examination of the whole shebang?
The answers to those two questions are, of course, critical. Information is decidedly limited right now. We do know that the new emails were found on a computer seized during the FBI’s sexting investigation of former congressman Anthony Weiner, on a computer used jointly by Weiner and his wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin. But Comey’s letter said the messages still had to be assessed to see whether they contained any classified information, or had any relevance to the Clinton email investigation.
There’s not yet any timeline for the process of ascertaining the depth, breadth and seriousness of the FBI’s decision to open an investigation about these new emails. It’s possible that we won’t know anything beyond Comey’s letter between now and Nov. 8. Or we might. We just don’t know. (Republicans are insisting that it must be serious because the FBI decided to do this so close to the election. Possible. But not close to proof of anything.)
Here’s what you can be certain of: While some large amount of the email stuff surrounding Clinton is already baked into her poll numbers and unfavorable ratings, the swirl surrounding the new news from the FBI will not help the Democratic nominee as she tries to build momentum for Election Day.
A few obvious issues it will create for Clinton:
1. Undecided voters — especially loosely affiliated Republicans — will be reminded of what they don’t like about Clinton, most notably the sense that it’s always something when it comes to her and her family. For at least the past year, a strong majority of Americans have said that the words “honest” and “trustworthy” don’t apply to Clinton. In September, more than 6 in 10 people in a Washington Post-ABC News national poll said they didn’t approve of how Clinton had handled questions about her emails; that included 48 percent who disapproved “strongly” of her handling of questions about the email setup. A majority — 56 percent — of respondents in a July WaPo-ABC poll said they disapproved of Comey’s decision not to charge Clinton for her role in the email controversy.
2. The Democratic base will be less energetic. It’s been true since Clinton became the nominee that there is a chunk of Democratic voters who have been somewhat resignedly for her. They like her but don’t love her. (To be clear, this is not all of the Democratic base; a large number of Democrats passionately support Clinton.) They know that the other option is Donald Trump, and that idea makes them more excited about the prospect of turning out to vote for Clinton. But revelations like this one sap enthusiasm from a chunk of the party base. It reminds them of the reasons they either wanted Bernie Sanders as the nominee or weren’t ever sold on Clinton.
3. The Republican base will be energized. Trump hasn’t made it easy to be a Republican these days. From attacking Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to ripping the Republican establishment as insufficiently loyal to him to the near-dozen women who have come forward alleging Trump sexually assaulted them, it’s been a rocky road for GOP base voters. Trump’s strongest card among these reliable Republican voters is that he’s running against Clinton, whom they hate. Their distaste for Clinton has been muffled somewhat by Trump’s antics. No more. Everything the GOP base doesn’t like (or trust) about the Clintons is on display in this FBI investigation. If they needed a reason to turn out and vote against her, they now have one.
(Relatedly: Even a slight dip in Democratic base enthusiasm coupled with a slight uptick in GOP base enthusiasm makes the path to victory for down-ballot Republicans easier. “Unless the FBI closes this new investigation one way or the other next week, the likely impact will be to cut into Clinton’s margin, with the bigger effect being on down-ballot races than on the outcome of the presidential election,” notes Patrick Murray, who runs the Monmouth University Polling Institute.)
How badly is Clinton hurt by all of this? It depends on what we learn and when we learn it. But there’s no way this is anything but bad news for Clinton with just 11 days left before Americans go to the polls.
What an absolutely remarkable election.