With less than a week before Election Day, Democrats are experiencing election panic. After having what seemed like an insurmountable lead just weeks ago, FBI Director James Comey renewed fears and animosity about Hillary Clinton's private email server — and now, the polls have tightened, with Clinton's election victory seeming uncertain. It seems the letter Comey sent to Congress last week, notifying members the FBI was reviewing new emails, could upend the race.
Or could it? While the emails have been covered as the biggest "October Surprise" in election history, the hard evidence that they are causing the polls to tighten is actually more difficult to discern.
According to Gallup, voters didn't actually change their opinion about Clinton after the FBI scandal. Forty-two percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Clinton before the scandal reignited — and the same after. In a Morning Consult poll conducted immediately after the news, 42 percent of undecided voters said they were less likely to vote for Clinton after the revelation. This seems like a big number, but it's not that different than the 41 percent who said it has no bearing. The overall result of that poll found that Clinton's lead was the same as it was before the news.
However, the general movement towards the race is definitely towards Trump. But that may be more complicated than just "Emails!"
To understand what is happening here, it's important to notice that the poll tightening actually started before Oct. 28, the day that Comey sent his letter to Congress. That makes some sense based on the general trends of the presidential race for the past several months — a news story (the Democratic convention, the debates, the Access Hollywood hot mic tape) will push Clinton into an extreme lead, which then eventually fades over time as it leaves the headlines, only to then take a more extreme dive when a news story bad for her replaces the previous one. Then, the process repeats.
In the final stretch, Trump benefits from a final reckoning from the portion of Republican voters who have disliked him this whole time. Trump has his highest percentage of Republicans who plan to vote for him of any point so far this election cycle. There are several likely reasons — anti-Trump Republicans who don't want Clinton are resigning themselves to vote for the alternative, Republican commentators are pushing to rally around Trump despite his imperfections, and Gary Johnson's campaign has collapsed.
A certain segment of experts have argued that the whiplash behavior of polls this cycle obscures deeper steadiness by voters. Sam Wang of Princeton University argued in the New York Times that the strong party loyalty of most voters makes the results keep reverting to normal (a Clinton win by four or so points) despite brief swings in the polls. Wang also gives Trump a 1 pecent chance of winning based on polling data for the same reason he doubts a Clinton landslide. The political scientists behind YouGov's polling find similar results from a panel that contacts the same voters repeatedly over months — in the wake of big news stories, few voters change their views. However, many supporters of a candidate facing bad news won't respond as often.
Their lack of response swings many of the polls — if Clinton supporters don't respond when the emails are in the news, the polls will show Trump leading. But the real question becomes — will those Clinton supporters still vote Clinton on Election Day? It's hard to tell, but with early voting so high this year, there's reason to believe they'll turn out, even if they won't talk to pollsters about it.
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