For Democrats and some political prognosticators, the answer to their surprisingly bad night is simple: Comey. Specifically, James B. Comey.
The fact that the FBI director brought Hillary Clinton's private email server roaring back into the national conversation 11 days before the election — only to clear her (again) the weekend before Americans voted — is unforgivable in many Democrats' minds. And in those same minds, Comey is the reason they find themselves losing an election in which polls suggested they held a significant edge.
It is possible that Comey's new look into Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state reminded many swing voters of what polls show is Clinton's weakest attribute: trust. No less than 62 percent of registered voters said in The Post-ABC News recent tracking poll they thought she was dishonest.
It's also possible that the Comey announcement lowered enthusiasm and turnout among Democratic voters feeling meh about Clinton, like Bernie Sanders supporters, while boosting enthusiasm for independent and Republican-leaning voters by reminding them of how much they dislike Clinton. (Though we have yet to comb through those numbers.)
But as The Fix's Aaron Blake wrote this week, we should consider any Comey effect with a heavy dose of skepticism. His announcement to Congress about finding emails “pertinent” to the Clinton email investigation accelerated a bump in polling that was already trending upward for Trump.
And it's very hard to deduce what voters' motivations are, Blake points out. In July, when Comey announced that the FBI did not recommend charging Clinton with a crime for her use of a private email server, most voters told Post-ABC pollsters the outcome of the investigation didn't matter in their vote. And Clinton didn't see a dip in her poll numbers for it.
Still, before voting had even finished Tuesday, some of Washington's most senior Democrats were laying the blame at Comey's feet. The top House Democrat, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) told reporters Tuesday evening that Comey's letter to Congress on Oct. 28 was “like a molotov cocktail.”
“He became the leading Republican political operative in the country — wittingly or unwittingly,” Pelosi said.
Earlier in the day, the top Senate Democrat, Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), told Politico in an interview, “Comey has done more damage to the FBI than anyone since J. Edgar Hoover.
“I think he has personally put a black mark on the FBI that will never go away. I made a mistake [confirming him]. Because I didn’t know he was such a Republican.”
Reid has accused Comey of potentially violating the Hatch Act by trying to use his public office to influence the election. A Hatch Act expert I spoke to said there are grounds for investigating Comey on that.
It probably won't surprise you to hear that Republicans and some conservative commentators disagree with the assessment that Comey ruined the election for Democrats:
For one, why are Democrats making Comey the scapegoat when their own presidential candidate was disliked by 56 percent of the population?
And what about the fact that Trump seems like he was propelled to victory in a number of swing states by a surge of turnout among white, working-class voters in states such as Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa? Isn't that evidence that Trump's populist economic message resonated with these voters?
In other words, some Republicans think Trump won this election and Clinton lost it — not that some official in Washington lost it for them.
There's clearly a lot of unpacking to do to understand Tuesday's drudging of Democrats up and down the ballot. But for many Democrats, there's only one word to left to say: Comey.