The late resurfacing of a controversy involving Hillary Clinton’s emails will test the one stubborn truth in this demolition derby of a presidential campaign: Almost nothing has dramatically altered for any length of time the narrow lead in polls held by the former secretary of State.
Clinton has rebounded from other missteps, just as Donald Trump bounced back from what would be, in any ordinary campaign, candidacy-ending scandals.
The reason: Voters have hardened, and mostly negative, views of both nominees and have stuck with their choice regardless of any new revelations. Bad news has eventually paled against the level of distaste for the opponent.
The firmness of those sentiments seems likely to diminish the impact that might otherwise have resulted from a fresh look at Clinton’s emails by the FBI, just as it earlier limited the effect of a dozen women accusing Trump of sexual assault.
In her favor, however, Clinton’s campaign has worked feverishly since early voting began in many key states to bank votes as insurance against any calamity, political or climatological, that could affect the race.
That means that fewer than the full complement of American voters is even in play. And as a way of keeping in her camp those who haven’t yet voted, the campaign spent the weekend trying to cast doubt on the FBI’s decision to go public.
Polling later this week may provide an early look at the impact. Yet the campaign so far suggests that many voters may ultimately shrug it off, as they have so many other episodes.
FBI Director James B. Comey unleashed the matter with his Friday letter to congressional leaders saying a new batch of emails related in some fashion to Clinton had been uncovered and were going to be examined.
The FBI has not said whether any emails are from Clinton, or whether they are new or rather duplicates of the tens of thousands already scanned by investigators. Nor is it clear whether any from Clinton contain material not meant to be public.
The FBI is not expected to clarify the details before election day, although on Sunday it received a warrant allowing investigators to look at the emails.
While searching the computer in recent weeks, agents found potentially thousands of Abedin’s emails related to her work for Clinton at the State Department, a law enforcement official said. The laptop contains hundreds of thousands of emails, most of them Weiner’s, another official said.
The timing is key: Both sides are trying to create momentum for their get-out-the-vote efforts.
Clinton has counted on a massive voter turnout operation to offset an early lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy, although recent polls show her supporters are now as engaged as Trump’s. So for Clinton, the latest dust-up served to signal to her backers that she’s the battling underdog, a position she has often profited from.
Trump is relying less on an organized get-out-the-vote operation than a riled-up, self-motivated corps of supporters who will cast ballots no matter what — and who have long detested Clinton. So for Trump, the matter served to reinforce his effort to inflame his supporters with conspiratorial talk of the American political landscape being rigged.
At New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she was introduced as the nation’s 45th president, Clinton cast the most recent travail as just more political static to be turned into fuel for her campaign.
“No matter what is thrown at us, we need to stay focused on our goal,” Clinton said. “We need to understand the best way to repudiate a negative, hateful, bigoted vision is by voting.”
“No matter what is thrown our way, we are not going to back down, we are not going to give up. We’re going to reject anyone who tries to drag us backward.”
Earlier, at a Miami brunch being held to encourage early voting, Clinton implored supporters to “get fired up.”
“These last nine days we can really race to the finish line,” she said.
Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, continued Democrats’ effort to shift criticism onto Comey for the timing and lack of clarity in his notification to congressional leaders.
“You can’t … leave it hanging out there with a question mark,” Kaine said on ABC’s “This Week.” “You owe people the complete information. If he hasn’t seen the emails, they need to make that completely plain.”
The Clinton campaign also sought to highlight a Washington Post story that said Trump had not made tens of millions of dollars in charitable donations, as he has claimed, even as he has acted to make it appear so before television cameras.
Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, argued Sunday that the new emails confirmed their campaign-long characterization of Clinton as corrupt and unsuited for the presidency.
The Republican nominee opened his campaign event in the posh Venetian resort in Las Vegas by attacking President Obama’s healthcare program, but soon pivoted to Clinton’s emails.
“Hillary has nobody but herself to blame for her mounting legal problems,” Trump continued, reading from prepared remarks. “Her criminal action was willful, deliberate, intentional and purposeful. Hillary set up an illegal server for the obvious purpose of shielding her criminal conduct from public disclosure and exposure.”
Trump’s remarks contradicted the FBI’s stance. Comey earlier this year said that Clinton had been reckless in her use of a private server but that her conduct had not risen to the level of criminal behavior.
“You see the polls closing in states around the country; the American people are focusing on the big issues in this country,” Pence said. “But frankly, I think they have also come to the conclusion that Hillary Clinton is a risky choice to be the next president of the United States, and Friday`s announcement just reaffirms that.”
As Pence indicated, polls have narrowed — as they do toward the end of nearly every presidential race. Still, the Trump campaign has proven unable so far to actually leapfrog over Clinton. What tightening there has been has not dramatically narrowed Clinton’s path to victory, nor expanded Trump’s.
And that is entirely in keeping with a race that has hewed to a fairly standard configuration.
According to an average of polls maintained by RealClear Politics, Clinton’s lead now is almost precisely what it was at the start of the Republican convention in mid-July.
Since then, the campaign has been buffeted by multiple attacks by Trump on a Gold Star family, on fellow Republicans and on women; by controversies over the Clinton family foundation and the Democratic candidate’s health; by Trump’s videotaped remarks about assaulting women and the emergence of real-life accusers; and by three contentious debates. None fundamentally changed the candidate’s standing in polls.
In fact, since June 16, Clinton has led every day but two. Trump last led in the RealClear Politics average on July 30.
Earlier this month, Democratic pollster Peter Hart noted that voters’ sense of each candidate had barely moved from one year earlier. That suggested that the vast majority of voters had fixed views, he said at the time.
“People are pretty well set where they are going to be,” said Hart, whose firm co-directs the NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
This week will show whether Trump can apply a discipline unseen so far in his candidacy and whether Clinton can persuade voters to look beyond the confusion of recent days. And it will show whether anything either of them does will matter.