Has the presidential race tightened dramatically in the wake of FBI director James Comey’s public comments about Hillary Clinton, in which he recommended against criminal prosecution but was sharply critical of her tenure as Secretary of State? A barrage of new state and national polling was released today, leading to a lot of chatter to the effect that Clinton may be sliding.
I spent some time talking to senior Democrats today, and the basic feeling among them is this: Yes, it’s very possible Clinton did take a real hit from the FBI news. But if so, they see this as more of a temporary dip than anything else. They see the polling right now as mostly useless, since we will know a lot more about the race once both candidates choose their vice presidential running mates and the conventions take place later this month.
In one sense, these Dems think nothing much has changed: They expect this to be a close, hard-fought race throughout, in part because these elections always are, so there will be a lot of ups and downs between now and November. We may be in a down, but they don’t seem particularly nervous about it.
This all got started with a new batch of Quinnipiac polls showing Trump up three in Florida (a big swing) and up two in Pennsylvania, with the two tied in Ohio. But moments ago, new NBC/WSJ/Marist polls showed Clinton up nine in Pennsylvania and up three in Iowa, and like the Q poll, a tie in Ohio. The NBC polls showed a tightening in Iowa and Ohio from previous polls.
Yes, a new Monmouth University poll shows Clinton up 13 in Colorado. But a new Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin (the gold standard for the state) shows Clinton up four among likely voters there, down from nine points in June, in a state that should be more comfortable for her. Mostly, these polls seem to suggest a tightening — and much of the polling was done amid the aftermath of Comey’s announcement (though the Q-polls stretched over a long period).
“I think the email lingers and Republicans keep it alive,” veteran Dem pollster Celinda Lake tells me. “I think the numbers will bounce around. Structurally this race is very close.”
One senior Democrat with access to a lot of private polling tells me that some surveys in states and districts where Clinton should be leading are showing her tied or slightly behind. But this senior Dem thinks the data probably reflects a momentary dip due to bad coverage of the FBI mess.
After all, even if Clinton did get cleared of criminal prosecution, the headlines for her were brutal. However, while Republicans will work very hard to keep the email issue alive, the Democrats I spoke to today seemed to think that it would remain in the background but get overtaken by other events that will dominate the news, particularly the conventions.
Top Dem pollster Mark Mellman, for instance, conceded that Clinton may have taken a real hit. But he noted that the current polls, if anything, still show her up after a very tough stretch, leading into a period that could prove more favorable to her. (She leads in the NBC polls in Iowa and Pennsylvania, the Marquette poll of Wisconsin, the Monmouth poll of Colorado, and still holds a three point national lead in a new Marist poll, though that, too, showed a real tightening.)
“If they show anything real at all — and they may not — these polls indicate Hillary Clinton had a bad week last week. And she did,” Mellman allowed. “But even after that bad week she is still ahead. We are going into the VP and convention period now so we probably won’t have a realistic picture of where the race is going until both conventions have concluded.”
Lake added that the convention could allow Clinton to reintroduce herself to voters who think they know her, based on all the negative coverage of her they’ve been hearing (for years).
“The convention will be very important — as it was in 1992 for Bill Clinton,” Lake said. “Voters think they know her. But they don’t really. And they have forgotten what they knew. People don’t know her long involvement with children. People have forgotten what she did as Secretary of State and Senator. The convention is a good opportunity to get that out.”
It’s also worth noting that the Dem convention will feature a very unified party, now that Bernie Sanders has endorsed her, and two presidents (Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who are both popular) are set to speak at it. Meanwhile, the Republican convention could feature more division, as many senior Republicans sit it out, and no one really knows who Trump will pick as Veep or what sort of show Trump will put on. (Are you ready to be wowed by Chris Christie and Jeff Sessions?)
The Democrats I spoke to mostly agreed that one key outstanding question is the degree to which the conventions unify the two parties. The Dem convention perhaps stands a better chance of doing that successfully, as moderate Republican voters struggle to come to terms with Trump and leading GOP officials don’t do much to help in that regard.
“I expect the Democrats will become unified,” veteran pollster Stan Greenberg told me, “which will allow a large bloc of voters to become more comfortable with Hillary.”
But Greenberg said that beyond all that, this presidential race is in many ways unconventional, revealing a Republican Party in a highly abnormal situation with a historically unpopular nominee. He argued that in the end, these big dynamics could end up mattering more than even the all-consuming email story, and Hillary’s oft-discussed negatives, will.
“I don’t think this is normal,” Greenberg told me. “People paid a lot of attention to the Republican primary. It was a huge event, in which the GOP defined itself as anti-immigration and anti-the dominant trends in the country. It offended women and sent waves across the gender divide. Whether or not there was any effect from the FBI findings, these are huge currents that are shaping the race. And they’ll be much stronger.”