On April 22, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted a link to a story he’d written back in November, remarking for his followers, “The case that the Comey letter ― or the media’s handling of the letter ―cost Clinton the election is painfully obvious.” He ended up taking some stick for it. So much so that he was incensed enough to lay out his case in greater detail in a May 3rd piece titled “The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton The Election.” It was basically an essay length explication of a simple premise he’d previously tweeted: “Not complicated. Clinton was up by a lot. Comey letter hits. Treated as massive story. Suddenly she was up by not-a-lot. She loses narrowly.” Silver provided his receipts.
The same day, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an appearance at the Women for Women International conference in New York City. At that venue, Clinton stated that the “reason why I believe we lost were the intervening events in the last 10 days.” Among them, she cited James Comey’s letter, essentially making a thumbnail version of Nate Silver’s argument. It was now her turn to take some stick for this:
While others seemed surprised that she had dared to say such a thing.
In a way, this is all perfectly just. I mean, what’s to be done when you lose a winnable election to Donald Trump? There’s a lot to be said about the inadequacy of Clinton’s campaign and the quality of her post-election soul-searching. And, in an election where tens of thousands of votes, specific to geography, might have flipped the election, it’s a failure with many fathers. Silver makes a compelling case that the letter from FBI Director James Comey, who Trump fired on Tuesday, was definitely one of them.
But there’s something that doesn’t add up about Nate Silver, and then Clinton, taking it on the chin from political reporters and pundits for making the observation that the Comey letter may have settled the election. But how can I put this?
Oh, yeah, that’s how. Where did Nate Silver and Hillary Clinton come up with this idea? Well, it wasn’t from out of the blue. When that Comey letter was made public in the days before the election, the entire media world erupted as one, making it clear that it could be the event to shift what looked to be a shoo-in win for Clinton into a loss. Quite literally, the foundational basis for Silver and Clinton’s premise comes pure and uncut from the heart of 2016 political media consensus.
Let’s go to the tape. The New York Times described the Comey letter as “potential turnabout rarely if ever seen at this stage of a presidential race.” The Clinton campaign, previously riding high, had been “rocked,” setting off “a frantic and alarmed scramble.” Bloomberg called it “a politically explosive development less than two weeks before the presidential election.” The Associated Press referred to it as “a new shock” that could imperil Clinton’s “solid advantage.” CNN reported that President Barack Obama had “doubled down” on his support of Clinton “despite” Comey’s letter ― the implication being that continuing to support the Democratic nominee was an unusual and risky thing to do.
The fecal lagoon that is cable news treated the matter in the same way. As Variety’s Sonia Saraiya noted, no lack of solid information “stopped media organizations, in the full flush of pre-election coverage, to make this some kind of ‘October surprise’ for the Clinton campaign, seizing on it as a turning point in the narrative of election 2016.”
Now, it’s possible to quibble with Silver’s underlying premise. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn did so on May 8, laying out the case that the discrepancy between when polls were taken and when those surveys were publicly reported upon tends to “exaggerate the effect of Mr. Comey’s letter on the presidential race.” It’s a solid argument.
Still, no one who took a switch to Silver or Clinton in the days following their comments contended with the theory in the way Cohn did. In fact, they didn’t really provide a factual basis for their case at all, merely saying that Silver couldn’t have been correct and that Clinton needed to take more responsibility for her failed campaign.
Still, there is no ambiguity on this front: When the news of Comey’s letter broke, the media told their customers that the Comey letter had the potential to alter the election outcome. Along the way, they faced a storm of reputation-damaging criticism for how they reported this story. With that in mind, you’d think that having Nate Silver and Hillary Clinton affirm that they were correct to have played the Comey letter as a “game-changing” event would bring no small amount of vindication. For some reason, their assertions have been widely greeted as angry intrusions. In Clinton’s case, it’s evidence of her inability to reckon with her failings.
But ... why is forcing Clinton to pursue this reckoning suddenly so important? As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes put it, “I find this obsession with Clinton taking full responsibility for her loss from ostensibly ‘objective’ observers really weird.” I’ll say! It does not make much sense.
Really, if Clinton is saying that the Comey letter threw the election, shouldn’t the people who proclaimed it as a game-changer simply say, “We told you so?” Trashing the notion now is basically a tacit admission that all those stories about the Comey letter that were published just ahead of the election should not have been presented in the way that they were. This is the way it works, folks: Either those stories were right and Clinton’s contentions are in line with what was reported, or the stories were garbage and she is just as wrong as everyone who reported it. There is no scenario in which the stories were good and proper, but Clinton can’t cite them in her own defense. This notion returns a 404 error.
But it seems to me that this is about much more than merely who gets to claim Comey’s last-minute intervention as a game changer, and it’s related to this responsibility-taking that Clinton is supposed to undergo. What everybody is looking for Clinton to do here is to say that she ran a bad campaign, and that she wasn’t out competing in crucial states (Wisconsin and Michigan) at critical times. Whenever Clinton brings up Comey, her critics in the media are essentially saying that she missed the real story of the election.
Which would be all well and good, if we in the media had gotten the story ourselves. But we ― with a few exceptions ― missed it, too.
Sure, months on from the events of that last week of the election, everyone in the media has a glib way of summing up What Really Happened and What Was To Blame. I’m no different, I have my own glib pronouncements on the matter as well. It’s never been easier to sound informed and cocktail party-ready to talk about the presidential election. But let’s be dead-honest about it: We’re all essentially changing the answers we wrote on the exam after we turned it in.
In the critical closing days of the election, our front pages weren’t filled with breaking news stories of a neglected Michigan electorate, or Clinton campaign infighting, or any of the more voguish reasons for her failure that we all now claim to see in hindsight. It was wall-to-wall “the Comey letter could be a game-changer.” And just to reinforce how idle-minded that coverage, and those contentions were, let’s remember that almost nobody seriously gave any thought to the idea she might lose, in spite of the panic of those headlines.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for HuffPost and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.