Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been rocked by the FBI’s decision to reopen its investigations into her use of a personal email server during her time as Secretary of State, upending the American presidential contest with just 10 days to go.
Or has it? Certainly, that was how the American media reported it, at least for the first few hours. But it now appears that a letter from FBI director James Comey was heavily spun by Republicans in Congress. A separate investigation into Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Clinton’s close aide, Huma Abedin, may (or may not) include emails of interest to the FBI. In no sense is the investigation into Clinton’s email being reopened.
It’s a taster of what will happen if, as still looks overwhelmingly likely, Clinton is elected president on 8 November: a Republican strategy to declare that she is “illegitimate”, just as they did with Bill Clinton and as they did with Barack Obama. As Clinton herself observed, in the case of Obama, the GOP did that by tapping into racial resentment, talking about him as if wasn’t “the real president”. With the Clintons, they’ll do that by talking about “corruption” and perpetual investigations into the Clinton Foundation and the question of her email server, no matter how many times she is exonerated.
But it’s also an example of the American media’s obsession with horse race over all. Donald Trump has, and always has had, one path to electoral victory – maximizing turnout among non-college educated whites by tapping into racial resentment. That’s long been the dream of the “alt-right” (that’s the politically correct way of saying “white supremacist”) to maximize the Republicans’ share of the white vote or to “southernise” the voting patterns of Northern white voters.
And it could work. Theoretically, the polls showing Trump well behind could be missing out a large number of white non-voters. However, it’s worth noting that these voters don’t seem to be showing up in early voting, in stark contrast to the Brexit vote, where an increased turnout in postal voting augured a higher than usual turnout.
Still, it remains possible – if not, in my view, at all likely – that Trump will win. However, that path to victory is not particularly sexy – it can’t be reduced to a horse race, a “who’s up, who’s down”, which is increasingly the bread-and-butter of American political reporting.
So instead non-events – this email story is the latest example – are blown up as game-changers, despite a mountain of evidence that the game remains unchanged. Similarly, the scandal about Donald Trump’s behavior and remarks towards women coincided with, but didn’t cause, his recessional polling. It did, however, give Republican politicians facing tough races against Democrats linking them to the toxic Trump the excuse they needed to abandon him, potentially saving their skins. The American media’s approach to “balanced coverage” tends to involve decrying the antics of both sides, which further emboldens Republican aggression.
This doesn’t always disadvantage Clinton. In the primaries, she probably benefited from the fact that the American press covered her contest with Bernie Sanders as if it was on a knife-edge, rather than giving greater coverage to the Sanders platform, which might have actually worn down her firewall with African-American and Hispanic voters.
But it shows two things: one, that, regardless of evidence, the American press will write up the next days as a closely-fought fight, just as they did with Barack Obama’s two landslides. And the second is that, even if Clinton is President, the Republican strategy under Obama: to effectively attempt to repeal the presidential elections on the Congress floor will endure.