How Hillary Clinton's Latest Email Problems Could Actually Work In Her Favor This Time

Democrats and Republicans are collectively freaking out over FBI Director James Comey’s announcement, made 11 days before the election, that the bureau is reviving its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email use. Many partisans on both sides see it as a potentially-devastating blow to Clinton’s White House prospects, an October Surprise that could destroy her candidacy. However, it’s entirely possible that, far from sinking her chances, Comey’s email investigation could help Clinton get elected.

It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s worth remembering what the race looked like in the moments before Comey made his announcement. Clinton had been leading Donald Trump by around six points for around a month, and the New York Times’ Upshot blog gave her a 92 percent chance of winning the presidency. The Clinton campaign had become so confident that it had started putting resources into red states like Arizona and Texas simply in an attempt to run up the score.

In retrospect, that may have been foolhardy. If you’re running for president, you never want your supporters to become too certain that you’ll win, because that gives them less incentive to actually get out and vote for you. The Brexit vote in Great Britain gave us a glimpse of what can happen when an electoral outcome is foreseen as inevitable: More than one British voter said that they voted “Leave” only because they were certain “Remain” would pass, and expressed immediate regret over their decision.

From this perspective, Comey’s announcement is great news for Clinton — or, to be more precise, the widespread overreaction to Comey’s announcement is great news for Clinton. Comey didn’t actually accuse Clinton of any wrongdoing, and so far, there’s no evidence that the newly-discovered emails contain anything particularly damaging for her. But the perception that this development is damaging to her, and that it could swing the election to Trump, may well light a fire under the butts of otherwise-complacent Clinton supporters.

Something like this happened during the 2008 election. Although Barack Obama led John McCain for the majority of the race, McCain took a slight lead in the polls after selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate. It may seem silly now, but Palin genuinely struck fear into the hearts of many Democrats that year, and that turned out to be a good thing for Obama: The day after Palin’s well-reviewed speech at the Republican National Convention, Obama pulled in $10 million in donations in a 24-hour period.

Soon thereafter, the economy collapsed, Obama regained his lead and Democrats won comfortably. It was a reminder, though, that a sudden sense of “oh sh*t, we might lose this thing” is one of most motivating thoughts a voter can have.