Top Democratic Party strategists say that Hillary Clinton took a serious hit from the James Comey letter to Congress — but remain cautiously optimistic that she is on track to winning the presidency, even as they view Donald Trump’s paths to victory as increasingly implausible.
In interviews today, these senior strategists offered differing takes on how Comey’s letter — which alerted Congress to newly discovered emails with unknown relevance — have impacted her candidacy.
Veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told me that internal data showed the Comey letter jarringly interrupted what looked like a path to a larger victory — and may have cost Dems some down-ballot races.
“Comey hurt a lot in terms of momentum,” Greenberg said. “We were heading towards a consolidation of the Democratic vote for her and down-ballot, and Trump voters were becoming more demoralized. Our tracking had crossed into her voters being more interested in the election than Trump voters were.”
“That changed,” Greenberg added. “That limits the scope of her win.”
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told me that the impact of the Comey letter was to sour millennials on Clinton and on the political process — potentially to the detriment of Dem Senate candidates in states like New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.
“Many millennials who were already discouraged about politics,” Lake said, saw increased “doubts whether voting for any politician makes any difference.” By way of illustration, Lake recounted that in one focus group in Nevada, one millennial said she was down to a choice between two options. When the moderator asked her if that meant Trump and Clinton, Lake recounts, this young voter replied, “No, between Clinton and not voting.”
“We are really struggling to get millennials out and this latest challenge makes that complicated,” Lake said.
Jefrey Pollock, a pollster for the pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA, told me that in the few days after the Comey letter broke, the numbers tanked.
“There were a few days when the data was grisly,” Pollock said. But he added that he thinks the damage from Comey has dissipated and is less meaningful than a dynamic that had already been in place, i.e., that the race had already tightening, with Republicans returning to Trump as the headlines from his sex tape and charges of unwanted advances faded, but not by enough for Trump to catch up with Clinton.
“As with every major shocking event in this campaign, after a couple of days it seemed to dissipate back to normal — a return to steady consolidation on his side, and a position where the electoral map favors Clinton,” Pollock said. He dismissed the public polling as overly volatile. “We’ve seen far more stability in the private polling than all of the public polling suggests,” Pollock added.
Greenberg argued that Clinton is now back on track to a sizable electoral college win. “I think she wins Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and holds all the blue states other than Iowa and Ohio,” Greenberg said. Florida remains heavily contested, and some Democrats there are nervous, but Greenberg says he believes the Latino vote there is showing itself to be “explosive” and that it is going underestimated. “People are stunned by the scale of it,” he said.
Greenberg suggested, however, that he would have preferred a different closing message than the one the Clinton campaign has opted for, a two pronged argument that includes going on offense against Comey and redoubling efforts to cast Trump as fundamentally unfit for the presidency. “With Comey putting the spotlight on Clinton, the campaign was forced to push back and get the attention back on Trump,” Greenberg said. “But that came at the cost of closing on the kind of economic change Hillary is championing.”
The Democratic strategists I spoke with today didn’t seem overly concerned with public polling that shows Trump potentially pulling even with Clinton in states like New Hampshire and Colorado, which has gotten lots of attention. One senior Democratic strategist said he is primarily focused on how Trump fares in Pennsylvania in the final days — because if he can truly win there, that would open up numerous other paths while also suggesting other Midwestern blue states might be gettable.
This strategist says that the way Trump might still somehow put Pennsylvania in play is through a combination of factors. He said he’s watching for any “degradation of Hillary’s advantage” in the suburban counties around Philadelphia, as voters there “return to their GOP roots and hold their noses and vote for Trump.” The prospective combination of that, plus under-performing African American turnout in Philadelphia, is what makes him nervous.
Greenberg agreed that African American turnout remained a point of potential danger. “The worst that can happen is if African American turnout doesn’t hold up, so Florida becomes closer and North Carolina slips,” he said. But he sounded pretty confident of victory in the end: “There’s no scenario in which she doesn’t become president.”