After revelations that federal investigators are examining additional evidence concerning Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, a presidential race that appeared largely in the bag for Clinton is suddenly looking more uncertain.
It will be several days before the polls reliably reflect the political impact — if any — of FBI DIrector James Comey’s Friday letter to congressional leaders. But already there are some indications the news could hurt Clinton.
The story reinforces existing perceptions of the former secretary of state: Despite her solid lead over Donald Trump on the ballot test, voters continue to harbor deep doubts about her trustworthiness. And previous stories about Clinton’s use of a private email account to conduct State Department business have led to an erosion in her poll numbers at earlier points in the campaign, including when Comey said in early July that the FBI would not recommend charges against Clinton and others despite what he called Clinton’s “extremely careless” email protocol.
Here are five data points to watch in the final 10 days of the campaign to see if the latest revelations move the needle — and the race tightens.
Comey’s letter on Friday risks reinforcing the prevailing view of Clinton: that she isn’t honest or trustworthy. In a Fox News poll out earlier this week, only 30 percent of likely voters viewed Clinton as honest or trustworthy, compared to 67 percent who don’t.
Among Trump voters, the news won’t matter much either way: 99 percent of Trump voters already think Clinton isn’t honest or trustworthy.
But here’s the potential danger for the Democratic nominee: Nearly a third of voters who say they are backing Clinton, 32 percent, think she isn’t honest or trustworthy. Only 64 percent of Clinton voters say she is honest and trustworthy.
The numbers are especially daunting for Clinton among independents: Only 14 percent of those who don’t affiliate with either party think Clinton is honest and trustworthy, compared to 84 percent of those who don’t.
Clinton has been more successful than Trump at uniting her party headed into the general election, but Friday’s disclosure threatens to reopen old cleavages following a fractious Democratic primary.
Among Democratic voters surveyed by Pew Research Center, majorities find Clinton honest and moral. But there’s a sizable divide between Democrats who supported Clinton in the primaries, and those who backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Eighty-three percent of Clinton-backing Democrats believe she is honest, but only 40 percent of Sanders supporters do. The splits are not quite as dramatic on the question of whether Clinton is “moral”: 88 percent of Clinton supporters think she is, while 64 percent of Sanders voters think so.
Sanders voters are also more likely to say Clinton is “reckless” (23 percent to 9 percent) and “hard to like” (42 percent to 25 percent).
Friday’s news adds to an ongoing — though entirely separate — Clinton controversy involving email: the apparent hacking of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s personal email account and publication of those unverified messages on the website WikiLeaks.
Overall, 37 percent of likely voters said the WikiLeaks disclosures made them less likely to support Clinton, according to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released Wednesday — this was after respondents were informed that the Podesta emails included “topics in high-priced speeches she gave to big bankers which differed from her public positions.”
For the most part, voters who have decided on a candidate viewed this question through their own partisan lenses: 70 percent of Clinton supporters said it had no impact on their vote, while 68 percent of Trump voters said it made them less likely to support Clinton.
But among undecided voters, 41 percent said it made them less likely to support Clinton, and 40 percent said it didn’t make an impact.
It’s too early to say, but it’s possible the Comey letter could be viewed from the same perspectives.
While it’s too soon to tell, Comey’s July 5 statement rebuking Clinton but stopping short of recommending charges offers a possible analog.
Back on July 4, Clinton had a 4.1-point lead over Trump in the HuffPost Pollster model of public polls. By July 17, the day before the GOP’s national convention in Cleveland, Clinton’s lead had diminished to 2.5 points. (Similarly, Clinton’s lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average went from 4.6 points on July 4 to 3.2 points on July 17.)
Where does the race stand today? As of Friday night, Clinton had a larger advantage in the HuffPost Pollster model, 7.1 points, than her 5.2-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average. But in either case, the most recent disclosure would have to move the needle more than the July statement in order for Trump to close the gap.
How much does the email issue matter to voters? The evidence suggests quite a bit.
A majority of likely voters, 62 percent, said in a CNN/ORC International poll conducted last week that “the way Clinton handled her email while serving as secretary of state is an important indicator of her character and ability to serve as president,” while just 37 percent said it “is not relevant to her character or ability to serve as president.”
Again, many voters interpret this through their own partisan lens: 93 percent of Trump voters say it’s important, but only 34 percent of Clinton voters agree. Still, losing even some of those Clinton voters for whom it is important would be perilous for the Democratic nominee.
Viewed in a different context, the CNN poll suggests Clinton’s email scandal is just as important to likely voters, if not slightly more so, than Trump’s treatment of women. A slightly smaller majority of likely voters, 59 percent, said the way Trump treats women is “an important indicator of his character and ability to serve as president,” and 38 percent said it isn’t important.
(The question was asked roughly two weeks after the release of the tape of Trump describing groping women; a dozen women have since come forward to claim that Trump made unwanted sexual advances or contact with them. Trump has denied these allegations categorically.)
On the issue of Trump’s treatment of women, 93 percent of Clinton voters say it is important, but a smaller percentage of Trump voters, 19 percent, say it isn’t important. That suggests, if the FBI investigation produces evidence that casts further doubt on Clinton among these voters — or continued ambiguity produces a cloud over Clinton through Election Day — her voters are more likely to be troubled by that evidence than Trump supporters would be by further allegations of improper conduct against the GOP nominee.
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