Here's Just How Much Hillary Clinton's Emails Dominated The Campaign

"It didn't leave, relatively speaking, very much room for the issues."
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears onstage at the Women in the World Summit in New York, April 6, 2017.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears onstage at the Women in the World Summit in New York, April 6, 2017.

NEW ORLEANS ― The phrase “But her emails!” has become a sarcastic rallying cry among many liberals who bemoan the attention dedicated last year to questions over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.  

Their perception ― that the focus on Clinton’s emails overshadowed the rest of her campaign ― is backed by data, according to an analysis recently released by researchers at Gallup, Georgetown University, and the University of Michigan. The results don’t directly address the share of media coverage focused on Clinton’s emails, or the degree to which it hurt her standing, but they make it clear that much of what the public remembered hearing about her was focused on the controversy.

“Email-related scandals clearly dominated recalled words about Clinton. This is true for almost every week of the campaign,” the authors concluded in a presentation given Saturday during a panel on election surveys. “There was no similarly common theme for Trump, whose multiple scandals produced a changing, and perhaps more easily overcome, narrative during the campaign.”

During last year’s election, the polling firm Gallup regularly asked Americans if they’d read, heard, or seen anything about the presidential candidates in the last few days. Those who had ― usually two-thirds or more of the public in any given week ― were asked to elaborate.

The researchers then pulled out the words used by the public to describe what they were hearing about both candidates, as part of an effort to figure out what information was reaching voters and staying with them.

In a chart of the most common words used in relation to Clinton between last summer and Election Day, the word “email” quite literally crowds out the rest, with several of the other most prevalent words also alluding to perceptions that she was scandal-plagued. “Health,” another relatively common word, likely refers to the coverage of Clinton’s collapse at a 9/11 memorial event, which was caught on camera. Her campaign later released a statement saying she had pneumonia.

Clinton’s performance in the presidential debates also attracted attention, as did some of her speeches. But words that reflect her campaign’s messaging or policy positions appear relatively scarce, suggesting her platform wasn’t at the top of most Americans’ minds.

“Because [what Americans recalled] was primarily about the emails, it didn’t leave, relatively speaking, very much room for the issues,” Michael Traugott, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said Saturday.

That held true for virtually the length of the general election. With the exception of the presidential debates and her bout with pneumonia, “email” was among the most cited words for Clinton in every week leading up to the election.

Many of the words surrounding Donald Trump also related to unflattering stories ― “women,” for example, which likely encompasses everything from his litany of demeaning comments about women to the accusations he faced late in the campaign of sexual harassment and assault. But no one topic completely dominated the public’s impressions of him or his campaign. 

The predominant conversations about Trump fluctuated throughout the campaign, encompassing his choice of Mike Pence as a running mate and his comments on immigration. Toward the end of the campaign, attention seemed to shift largely to his treatment of women.

Most of the words used to describe Trump weren’t exactly policy-focused either. But more so than Clinton, Trump apparently managed to focus public attention on at least some of his campaign rhetoric, specifically on immigration. That squares with a pre-election HuffPost/YouGov survey, which found that Americans perceived Trump’s campaign as focused on immigration, and Clinton’s campaign as being largely about the personal qualities of both candidates.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Republicans and Democrats consumed and remembered starkly different information about the candidates, according to the Gallup data. 

While Democrats were paying attention to Trump’s comments about women and marginalized groups, Republicans focused more on his attitudes toward immigration and his pledges to “make America great again.”

If the prominence of the word “speech” is any indication, much of what they heard about Trump came directly from the candidate himself. Cable television networks like Fox, CNN and MSNBC regularly aired Trump’s campaign speeches in their entirety during last year’s election ― in one case, as The New York Times’ Michael Grynbaum noted, skipping Clinton’s speech to a workers’ union in order to “broadcast a live feed of an empty podium in North Dakota, on a stage where Mr. Trump was about to speak.”

Most of the attention to Clinton’s emails came from Republicans, who perceived her more generally as dishonest and scandal-plagued. Democrats’ impressions of Clinton, while not centered around any particular topic, were far more neutral, and included interest in topics like her economic proposals.