Forget about the politics and issues. What if the real cause of the presidential election results just had to do with lack of cybersecurity and lies?
Over a week separated from what many still consider the most stunning Presidential upset since Truman defeated Dewey, analysts are still trying to comprehend exactly what went wrong with their turnout models, polling and erroneous inevitability of Hillary Clinton.
Was it bad sampling? Bias? Was the electorate overwhelmed by a tidal wave of middle-American bigotry? Was the DNC’s get-out-the-vote strategy a failure? Was there too much voter fraud? Was it a lack of Latino turnout? Black turnout? Chicago zombie turnout?
The answer may be much simpler: honesty and favorability. And whereas in previous years those metrics were decided by debates, personal appearances and town halls, this may be the first time in American history that cybersecurity, cyberwarfare, media distribution and troll culture helped to alter the trajectory of a U.S. Election in a measurable way.
Both major candidates started the general election with high net unfavorable ratings; Hillary Clinton due to the Benghazi hearings and subsequent email investigations, and Trump due to… well, just being Trump. But as Clinton’s various data-related issues began to mount, a pattern also began to develop. Each event in the timeline of the Clinton and DNC email scandals seemed to directly correspond to alterations in the favorability gap between front-runner Clinton and her opponent, and not insignificant ones. By the same token, it was Trump’s own inability to govern his remarks, born from his desire to pander to the alt-right internet culture that powered him to victory in the first place, that kept him from being able to capitalize as completely as he could have on the Democrats’ unforced errors.
To test this theory, I took a look at the timeline for the RealClearPolitics.com favorability average tracking for both candidates between July 2, 2015 and November 7, 2016. I then cross-referenced the dates of major announcements in the Clinton investigation, and notably offensive gaffes by Trump, and looked for a corresponding change in the polling. Here’s what I found.
Prelude: What Difference Does It Make?
The first major series of developments after the start of polling on July 17, 2015, was when State Department Inspector General Steve A. Linick and Intelligence Community Inspector General I. Charles McCullough, III issued a memo confirming that several emails sent from Clinton’s privately-owned email server contained classified material that was not marked as such, and that at least one of those messages was released publicly. Clinton saw a favorability drop of 1.9 points virtually overnight.
One week later, a follow-up reconfirmed and clarified the previous announcement, stating that a random sample of 40 emails turned up four messages with classified information, although the inspectors did not confirm whether the emails were sent or received by Clinton’s address. Her numbers see a slight bump of 0.7 points as no new real developments occurred, giving a bit of recovery space.
On August 20, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan declared that Clinton’s private server was a violation of federal government policy. Over the next 40 days, during which the bulk of the recovery of the server and the publication of initial findings took place, Hillary Clinton’s net favorability average dropped from -2.0 to -11.3, a 9.3 point drop. Trump, who devoted most of his energy to the email scandal, saw a corresponding bump in favorability of 11.6 points, shrinking the gap from 32.6 to 11.7, a net change of 20.9 points.
Foot in Mouth, Parte the Firste
Through the months of October and November 2015, the numbers remained relatively stable for Hillary, while Trump saw a 1.9 point jump in favorability after his November 7 appearance on Saturday Night Live. However, in the weeks following the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris and the San Bernardino attacks 2 weeks later, Clinton regained a bit of traction after Trump made remarks supporting a national registry of Muslims, surveillance of Mosques, and his opposition to allowing Syrian refugees into the country.
The Four-Front Civil War
In the week leading up to Christmas 2015, the Bernie Sanders campaign gained access to proprietary voter information from the Clinton campaign due to a database glitch. In the immediate aftermath, her net favorability would peak at -5.0 from December 16 until December 22, down from an all-time high of -0.8 on July 15 & 16, marking the highest level since the email scandal. The Sanders campaign apologized for accessing the data and fired those determined to have participated. However, the breach ignited a feud between Sanders and the Democratic National Committee on December 17, as the DNC terminated the Sanders team’s voter database access entirely. Sanders filed a lawsuit the following day, accusing the DNC of breach of contract. However, it was just the beginning of a difficult week for the DNC, as some voers accused the party of scheduling the third Democrat debate on a Saturday night in order to get poor ratings. Combined with the database kerfuffle, many Sanders supporters began to suspect the party was actively playing favorites for Clinton’s benefit. The week spent at -5.0 would ultimately represent the peak of Clinton’s favorability after the email scandal, as she experienced a 3.2 point drop to -8.2 on December 23.
Enthusiasm for both candidates dropped dramatically over the course of the primary season, especially for Trump, who – at first – failed to gain the support of the traditional Republican primary voters who resented his presence in the election, seeing it as nothing more than self-aggrandizing interference. However, as Trump began to look like more of an inevitability, he rebounded dramatically, from a low of -35.1 in the primaries to a primary-period peak at -22.6 on May 26, the day he clinched the nomination. This represented a very slightly higher level than the winter peak of -23.0.
Clinton and the DNC, meanwhile, were juggling a primary process as well as the continuing lawsuit from the Sanders campaign. The lawsuit was ultimately withdrawn on April 29, but the damage may have been done. Three days after Trump’s peak, on May 29, the Clinton campaign hit an all-time low of -20.0, down from a high of -8.2 after the DNC data fiasco. This includes a 5.3 drop from May 18-25 in the wake of the Nevada Democratic Convention, in which supporters claimed more than 60 of Sanders’ delegates had their credentials denied, swinging some unclaimed national delegates to Clinton. Videos and eyewitness accounts circulated online, and Sanders’ campaign manager claimed the state party had “hijacked the process on the floor,” accusing them of “ignoring the regular proceure and ramming through what they wanted to.”
(Aside: That second accusation likely elicited belly laughs from Republicans who had paid close attention to the Congressional actions leading to the passage of the PPACA.)
Foot in Mouth, Parte the Seconde
The beginning of June saw another drop for Donald Trump after his own party denounced accusations of bias made against U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel who was assigned to oversee the fraud case against Trump’s former business correspondence school, Trump University. The comments accused Curiel of being an unfair judge because he is Hispanic, and claimed he would use his heritage to punish Trump for comments made about Mexicans and Hispanics. However, his fortunes would change beginning on July 6, as his post-convention bounce took him to a new favorability high of -19.8, bolstered by more Democratic chaos, this time at the national level.
In the days leading up to the DNC Convention, Wikileaks published a series of hacked emails that confirmed Sanders supporters’ suspicions: the national party had been behind Hillary the entire time. DNC chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) took the brunt of the voters’ anger, ultimately announcing her resignation before the start of the convention.
High-level leaders and staff at the DNC spoke in the emails of Sanders with utter disdain, openly strategizing on how best to defeat him in the primaries and install Hillary as the nominee. Though most of the statements were from a point in the primaries when Hillary was almost certainly a lock, many voters took them as a clear indicator of corruption in the party.
Schultz’ primary opponent for her 23rd-District of Florida seat, Tim Canova, filed an FEC complaint after it was discovered that the party was, in his opinion, acting as an arm of her campaign; dozens of emails were discovered showing the DNC attempting to manipulate media coverage of the House race, and doing opposition research on both Canova and Sanders on Schults’ behalf. Schultz would go on to win the general election from FL-23, beating Republican Joe Kaufman 56.7% to 40.5%, the best performance by a Republican in the district since its creation in 1990.
The fallout from the DNC leak corresponded to another drop from the Clinton campaign in the aftermath of FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that charges would not be recommended against Clinton in the email scandal. On July 30, the day after the end of the convention, the Clinton and Trump campaign favorability gap reached its lowest breadth: just 3.1 points, advantage Clinton.
Foot in Mouth, Parte Thirde
August saw a re-widening of the gap as Hillary Clinton received her post-convention bump and promoted party unity among Democrats, enjoying the endorsement of bitter rival Bernie Sanders. Trump’s numbers correspondingly dropped as remarks he made inviting Russia to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing” reverberated through the political community. Trump, who already faced accusations of ties to Putin’s government, was then rocked by a USA Today report that his campaign chair and manager, Paul Manafort, had ties to ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin loyalist. The report claimed Manafort may have illegally accepted over $12 million in secret funds from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. His numbers reached a low of -29.7, his worst favorability since the primaries.
However, Trump was able to turn his fortunes around with the help of a campaign shakeup and another data scandal within the Clinton campaign. On August 17, it was announced that Manafort would be removed from his position as campaign manager and replaced with senior adviser Kellyanne Conway. The position of CEO was given to Breitbart News co-founder Stephen Bannon. It was originally announced that Manafort would remain as chair, however he resigned his position a few days later.
Across the aisle, former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner was embroiled in his third sexting scandal. On August 28, it was reported that Weiner, the husband of Clinton senior aide Huma Abedin, had sent a scantily-clad photo of himself to a women in July of 2015. The photo showed his toddler son sleeping next to him. Trump seized on the scandal and Abedin’s announcement that she would be separating from her husband. The reaction was swift. The Clinton campaign’s favorability rating dropped 3.5 points in three days, from -10.2 to -13.7, while Trump, already with post-shakeup momentum, rose 2 points, from -26.6 to -24.6. In all, between August 23 and September 20, Trump gained 10.9 points, peaking at -18.8. Clinton would drop by another 1.6 points after a report in the UK’s Daily Mail that Weiner may have engaged in sexually explicit conversation with a 15-year-old girl. The FBI began an investigation of Weiner, and both his and Abedin’s computers and mobile devices were seized as part of the evidence-gathering efforts.
Foot in Mouth, Parte Fourthe
Of course, Trump has proven time and time again to be his own worst enemy. On October 7, raw footage from the television tabloid Access Hollywood leaked featuring an audio recording of Donald Trump in conversation with host Billy Bush during a promotional segment for a Trump appearance on NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives. In it, Trump makes lewd comments about Bush’s co-host Nancy O’Dell, as well as Days actress Arianna Zucker, infamously declaring that his celebrity status lets him do anything he likes to women, including “grab them by the pussy.” Again, the reaction was swift. Over the next week, Trump’s favorability dropped by 7 points to -26.4.
Postlude: A Big Difference
But the email scandal that caused the initial fishtailing of the Clinton campaign over a year before may prove to be what ultimately torpedoed Hillary Clinton. On October 17, a series of documents released by the FBI claimed that State Department senior manager Patrick Kennedy had repeatedly pressured investigators to walk back their claim that the material found in the recovered emails was not classified, as they have previously reported. While Kennedy attempted to have material in one email declassified, a similar batch of reports the previous moth state that senior State Department officials tried to have subordinates in the brand deceive the public about the nature of the emails. One summary released on October 17 made a similar claim. Combined with the post-debate bump, Trump enjoyed a rise of 5.2 points for the next 10 days, while Clinton saw a 1-point drop from -9.0 to -10.0 in the immediate aftermath, rising back to -7.4 after the debate.
However, on October 30, James Comey revealed to a Congressional panel that the investigation into Anthony Weiner had uncovered new emails pertinent to the investigation on a device belonging to his estranged wife, Huma Abedin. On November 3, Trump reached his highest favorability rating of the election, at -16.4, 4.5 points behind Clinton. Trump’s favorability would then rebound down to the previous week’s levels by election day, but Clinton would ultimately suffer a net loss of 5.2.
So what conclusions can be drawn from this? Despite his best efforts, Donald Trump managed to win a majority of electoral votes, pulling off stunning upset wins in previously-reliable Democrat strongholds Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, a 1.3% Florida, with a nearly 9% win in the bellwether of Ohio. Many pundits on the Democrat side were left stunned by the turn, insisting the win was symbolic of a white-nationalist uprising or a symptom of a broken electoral college system, since Clinton did end up getting a raw majority of votes nationwide. But the answer is far simpler: turnout.
Democrat turnout was down dramatically from the 2008 Obama wave, and is on a downward curve. Hillary Clinton got over 9.5 million fewer votes than Barack Obama in 2008, and over 6 million fewer than Obama in 2012. Meanwhile, GOP voters have been generally consistent, with Trump receiving just over 300,000 fewer votes than McCain, and 1.2 million fewer votes than Romney. While some of this can be accounted for in Hillary’s perceived lack of charisma compared to Obama, the possibility cannot be discounted that the wild swings in Clinton’s likability had severe effects on her turnout, along with the perception of media bias.
The post-Reagan era of GOP candidates have not always set the world on fire. George W. Bush maintained the most popularity among Republicans in the 21st century primarily through folksy charm and blue-collar sensibility. But even he had his “hold-your-nose” voters, especially among civil libertarians. The rest of the party has been well-practiced in settling for the lesser evil. While Democrats pandered to their bases with promises of bigger government and more free stuff, the GOP has been left in election after election voting less for conservatism and more against liberalism. So of course they turned out for Donald Trump in similar numbers as his predecessors. It wasn’t David Duke chanting “White power,” it was Billy Pilgrim sighing, “So it goes.” Trump’s behavior wasn’t a surprise, he was playing the role the GOP always knew he would. He was just being Trump… nothing more, nothing less.
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton was supposed to be the professional, experienced politician. But her email scandal cost her conservative Democrats and independents, who saw her as both weak on national security and prone to shady dealings. The DNC hack alienated the far-left Sanders crowd and drove them to vote 3rd-party or just stay home, even in union-friendly stalwart states around the Great Lakes region, who already were gaining rightward-momentum thanks to pro-growth, anti-big-labor policies espoused by their governors and legislatures. Clinton was operating in the shadows, lying to America, lying to her party, even lying to her colleagues. Trump may be a scumbag, the people said, but at least he’s a scumbag in broad daylight.
Neither candidate ever truly gained anything resembling momentum, based upon the favorability models. However, the psychologies of the party bases were very different. Donald Trump’s flaws didn’t make him endearing in the least, but GOP voters were still willing to turn out for him because they found Hillary more loathsome. Hillary Clinton was never able to consolidate her base because the Democrats have grown used to candidates who give them the affection and attention they crave, and Hillary Clinton and the DNC spurned the same wide-left voters that put Barack Obama in the White House.
And so, ultimately, the biggest lesson in all of this is an observation I made at 1:45 in the morning on election night: it doesn’t matter how much money you raise, how organized your get-out-the-vote measures are, how competent your campaign manager is or how coherent your speeches are. You will win the Presidency if you are perceived as more honest than your opponent, even if that honesty is horrifying.