Oped: Email news not likely to sink Clinton

Philip Paolino
Tribune News Service

FBI Director James Comey's letter to Congress stating that the bureau had learned of new emails that could be related to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's email server has prompted questions over the effect this news will have on the election.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes the stage with Alicia Machado, who won the Miss Universe pageant in 1996, to speak at a rally at Pasco-Hernando State College in Dade City, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

While this revelation has made unwanted headlines for the Clinton campaign — and may provide the Trump campaign with some benefit — there is little reason at this time to believe that it will have a large effect upon the election.

Prior to Friday's announcement, the Clinton campaign was widely judged to have a comfortable though not insurmountable lead in the polls and, more important, a lead with the Electoral College.

With analysts like Nate Silver giving Clinton a greater than 80 percent chance of winning Pennsylvania and Real Clear Politics also describing that state as leaning Clinton, based upon an average 5.6 percent lead from five recent polls, the Trump campaign would need to win Iowa, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and either New Hampshire or Colorado to get the necessary 270 electoral votes.

A sizable national shift in sentiment could make it possible for the Trump campaign to win all of those contests, but suffice it to say, the Trump campaign would rather not be in this situation.

Nonetheless, the revival of the email story is welcome for the Trump campaign and provides it with some renewed hope. For one thing, the story redirects news coverage back to the nagging issue of Hillary Clinton's decision to use a private email server while serving as secretary of state.

While the Clinton campaign appeared to be moving toward a clear victory, this renewed attention creates a sense of uncertainty and prevents her campaign from finishing on its own terms with its desired message being the final word. In an election contested largely over candidate image, moving the focus from concerns about Donald Trump's fitness to be president to Hillary Clinton's provides some advantage for the Trump campaign.

To determine whether this story is likely to provide a large-enough benefit to the Trump campaign, we need to consider a couple of points. First, 22 million people nationally through early voting have already cast ballots — about 17 percent of the total ballots cast in 2012. In battleground states like Florida and North Carolina, the corresponding percentages are higher at 41 and 33 percent, respectively. Many voters, therefore, have already committed themselves prior to this new development.

It is worth noting that some critical states, like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, do not have early voting, so voters in those states still have another week to react to this and any new information. Moreover, the people who have already voted are generally those who have known for months which way they would vote and would be least likely to be influenced by this news.

Second, even for the 80-plus percent of votes that remain to be cast nationally, the news is not likely to change too many peoples' minds. The story only reinforces an issue with Hillary Clinton that has been known to voters for many months. A long line of research suggests that Donald Trump's supporters will see it as further evidence of the "Crooked Hillary" narrative, while Hillary Clinton's supporters will accept her campaign's arguments that the announcement has not revealed any new evidence linking Hillary Clinton to any wrongdoing.

With the polls narrowing as Donald Trump has been solidifying his support among Republican identifiers, it may be difficult to determine exactly what effect this news will have upon the election, but it alone will probably not be sufficient to overcome the lead that Clinton appeared to have before the news broke.

— Philip Paolino is associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas.