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National Election 2016
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After FBI Shakes Up Presidential Race, Candidates Try To Adjust And Capitalize

FBI Director James Comey walks up to speak on cybersecurity in August. His decision to release a letter noting he's looking into more Clinton emails has rocked the presidential election.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
FBI Director James Comey walks up to speak on cybersecurity in August. His decision to release a letter noting he's looking into more Clinton emails has rocked the presidential election.

A week ago, Hillary Clinton was looking to run up the score against Donald Trump. Her campaign was running ads in Texas and planning a trip to the traditionally red state of Arizona.

Today, she heads out on that trip, but in a presidential election that has now seen a tightened race from where it was a week and a half ago.

It all seems to have shifted after a letter sent Friday by FBI Director James Comey. His update to Congress informed members that the bureau had found more emails, and that he had all but reopened the investigation into Clinton's private server. The catch: Comey said he didn't know if the emails — on the computer of Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of close Clinton aide Huma Abedin — were significant, because the FBI hadn't even gotten permission to look at them yet.

It had an immediate effect on the race. Just two weeks ago, Trump's candidacy looked left for dead after a 2005 Access Hollywood hot mic video was leaked. In it, he was bragging about groping and kissing women without their permission, and, after denying at a debate that he did those things, multiple women came forward to say Trump had done it to them.

Now he's emboldened, touting polls he'd once dismissed, attacking Clinton as the status quo, and traveling to Democratic-leaning states like Wisconsin. "We're leading, with all of the dishonesty," Trump said of the media in Eau Claire, Wis. "We're leading, and I think we're leading big, and I think on Nov. 8, it will even be bigger."

Clinton, on the other hand, is launching new television ad buys in states she's supposed to have in the bag — Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia. And she's going to Michigan on Friday. Campaign officials insist they aren't nervous. They say they are spending money in these states because they have extra cash to burn. But in these closing days, Clinton is trying to hang on to her lead at least as much as she's trying to expand the map.

Her message had shifted to a more uplifting focus when her lead expanded. Now, it's back to criticizing Trump. "Imagine him plunging us into a war, because somebody got under his very thin skin," she said Monday in Ohio.

She derided him as a "bully" and highlighted his treatment of women. "I guess the bottom line is he thinks belittling women makes him a bigger man," Clinton said Tuesday in Florida, "and I don't think there isn't a woman out there anyway who doesn't know what that feels like. He doesn't see us as full human beings."

What about those polls?

It wasn't that long ago that Trump was dismissing polls showing his campaign trailing Clinton — and declaring the election was "rigged."

"I don't believe the polls anymore. I don't believe them," Trump said at a campaign event in Colorado Springs, Colo., last month.

Now he has changed his tune.

"Lotta good polls out there today," Trump said at a campaign event Tuesday at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "We just got one — we're 7 up in North Carolina, 7 up. ... We're sorta way up everywhere."

That's false. Trump is not "up everywhere." As one should expect from any candidate, Trump is clinging to polls that show a good result for him, but it's hardly the full context — or the right way to think about where this race stands.

The North Carolina poll he citesshowing him up 7 is questioned for its methodology. It was conducted with a mix of robo poll methods (calls to a landline with a prerecorded announcer) and Internet. More importantly, it's dismissed for the fact that it has Trump winning almost a quarter of Democrats and 90 percent of Republicans. That is far outside anything any other polls have shown. (For context, the 2012 exit polls in North Carolinashowed Mitt Romney winning 96 percent of Republicans and Obama winning 91 percent of Democrats.)

A text from Hillary Clinton's campaign to supporters after a poll came out showing rival Donald leading.
Domenico Montanaro / NPR
A text from Hillary Clinton's campaign to supporters after a poll came out showing rival Donald leading.

Another poll that has gotten a lot of attention — an ABC/Washington Post tracking poll had Trump up 1. Day-to-day tracking polls can be problematic, because they measure every blip, even potentially temporary dips in enthusiasmthat can skew results.

To show just how unlikely that poll is: The Clinton campaign texted the results to supporters Tuesday night — asking for money.

Here's reality: When a campaign signals a red alert on a poll, the poll is usually not what a campaign (that does polling) is seeing privately — and is a plain attempt to raise money and motivate voters. (It also might qualify as high-level trolling of narrative-setting reporters.)

Bottom line? It's an outlier — and never let your analysis be shaped by the fringe.

It's true, though, that several trustworthy polls suggest some tightening in the race with Trump making up ground in some key battlegrounds and even leading — like in Florida, for example.

But Clinton still retains the clear advantage in this race. She has many more paths to the 270 electoral votes needed to be president. And she hasn't trailed in the average of polls since late July after Trump's Republican convention bump was quickly erased following the Democratic convention.

It should also be noted that the reason for the tightening in public polling isn't cut and dried. Elections tend to get closer as Election Day nears. Republican and Democratic voters tend to come home. You're seeing that with Libertarian Gary Johnson, once a reservoir of GOP protest, seeing his numbers dissipate, as the Washington Post's Philip Bump points out.

Also, when bad news events happen for one candidate or another, when a pollster calls in the immediate aftermath, supporters tend to either not answer the phone, decline to be interviewed or say their enthusiasm level has (temporarily) dropped. That, in turn, can artificially inflate the importance of the news event.

That's why it's usually best to wait a week or so before assessing the true impact of such an event. Unfortunately for poll consumers, Election Day is less than a week away.

Gravity of polarization

Comey was in a box. Either don't present the information — and be accused of covering up to help elect Clinton. Or do what he did — present new, albeit vague and nonspecific, information and look like you're weighing in to an election in an unusual way. His move outraged Democrats and has been criticized even by some Republicans, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee — and no friend to Clinton.

Perhaps there was a better alternative to the way Comey approached this — come out and explain the contents of what the FBI had and explain why it was so important to bring forward in the closing days of a presidential campaign. But we are where we are.

It has been just a few days since the FBI news broke, but if all holds over the next few days, the FBI letter may have, at the very least, served to stop Clinton's red-map expansion and snapped the race back to where it was — Clinton with a clear but perhaps not insurmountable lead.

This election has been a test case of the gravity of polarization. Nothing more predicts how someone will vote than how that person has voted. In other words, no matter how much people like to say they could go either way, or they dislike both candidates, how someone votes and identifies — as a Republican or Democrat — is the best indicator of what they will do in the voting booth.

As FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten said at a panel with one of your authors, "Party ID is a helluva drug."

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.