News analysis

Too late to undo damage done to Clinton

NEW YORK • In the span of nine days, Mrs Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server has gone from a careless act to a potentially disqualifying criminal act and then back to carelessness again.

The big question now, however, is whether in the process, it also became a decisive game-changer.

After sending the election campaign into a frenzy last week with news that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was looking into a new trove of Clinton e-mails, FBI director James Comey on Sunday issued what amounted to a "Nothing to see here, folks".

In an unexpectedly speedy conclusion to a review of e-mails he announced a week earlier, Mr Comey told lawmakers that nothing the agency found changed its earlier decision not to charge Mrs Clinton with any crime.

But while the news lifts the cloud hanging over the Clinton campaign, there are real doubts if this exoneration undoes the damage of the earlier insinuation. The upside is clear. The Democratic nominee no longer faces the awkward prospect of a criminal charge after the election. But that may offer little solace to the former secretary of state. The reasons Sunday's FBI letter might be bittersweet for the Clinton campaign are two-fold. First, a lot of the damage that has been done simply cannot be undone. And second, though the news is good, talking about it might very well bring further attention to the bad.

 

The lead in the polls Mrs Clinton enjoyed over Mr Donald Trump has narrowed by around 3 percentage points since the Oct 28 FBI bombshell, but analysts say it is difficult to pinpoint how much of it was due to the e-mail scandal and how much of it was simply the polling reverting to its steady state after a bad stretch for the Republican.

However much damage it did, it is unlikely to be undone by the new letter. At the heart of the issue is the fact that the FBI announcement did not just hurt Mrs Clinton because of its content, but it also changed a campaign focused on the faults of Mr Trump into one focused on the faults of Mrs Clinton.

In between the two letters, millions of Americans in early voting states cast their ballots under the impression that one candidate could subsequently end up in jail. Others who have not voted but were predisposed against Mrs Clinton were reminded of the source of their antipathy. So while the exoneration now removes the sting from one Clinton scandal, it is not going to help voters forget about the others.

As Dr Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Centre, told The Straits Times: "It's like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. At best she (Mrs Clinton) can hope that, if she still continues to lose votes over the issue, this exoneration would stop the bleeding."

And that dynamic also puts into question whether the new letter will have entered voter consciousness by today. The Clinton campaign will likely be in two minds about how strongly it wants to publicise the new FBI letter.

If indeed, as polls suggest, the primary fallout from the e-mail revelations is now over, bringing it up again - even in a positive context - runs the risk of making her e-mails the focus of the election in the closing moments.

Statistician and election forecaster Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight noted for instance that the "headlines themselves aren't particularly helpful to Clinton, even if the news itself is".

Few would be surprised if the candidate does not address the FBI matter in her final day of rallies.

The timing of the announcement means that many of these questions cannot be answered by polls. It is now too close to election day for pollsters to accurately survey opinions. The only indication left of the impact of the FBI's intervention this past week is who is victorious today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2016, with the headline 'Too late to undo damage done to Clinton'. Print Edition | Subscribe