Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party were already having a terrible week when the FBI dropped a bombshell.
“In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into Clinton’s email server, read a statement from FBI Director James Comey released to Congress. “I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.”
What followed was chaos as the political world digested the implications of the inexplicably vague indication that the federal criminal investigation into Clinton’s conduct, declared defunct by Comey in July, had been reactivated.
In the following hours, reporters with sources inside the FBI clarified that the investigators discovered emails with sensitive information that may have been gleaned from Clinton’s server but did not come directly from the former first lady. They were not emails that Clinton, her campaign, or the State Department had withheld—indicating that what Comey described as “careless” behavior from Clinton had been worse than previously known. These emails were not obtained as a result of the WikiLeaks hacks of John Podesta’s accounts or the Russian infiltration of Democratic committee servers. It was almost worse than that. The New York Times revealed that, in investigating the mobile devices of former Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, the FBI might have found information that could have been sensitive enough to classify.
This is politically deadly. It reminds the public of Clinton’s reckless conduct in service to her sense of “convenience,” a story that has sapped her of credibility among voters. If information that could even be construed as potentially classified found its way onto either Abedin or Weiner’s email accounts, it expands the scope of Clinton’s potential carelessness. Finally, it jogs the public’s memory about the grotesque figure that is former Congressman Weiner. The only reason the FBI is probing the former congressman’s devices is the allegation that he exchanged explicit messages with an underage girl. Worse, it’s unlikely that this new investigation will be closed before the election. These new allegations will just hang in the air for ten days, tainting the race and coloring voters’ opinions of Clinton’s conduct and the party she leads.
It’s hard to imagine a worse time for this to have dropped on Democratic heads. It comes amid a drumbeat of releases of information regarding the “Clinton Inc.,” an admitted apparatus designed to enrich Bill Clinton through his work at the Clinton Foundation. It occurs following a week of deadly revelations regarding the Affordable Care Act’s premiums spiking. And the case now involves the lurid details of Wiener’s depraved sexual appetites, which media cannot resist. There is probably no way to derail the story before the weekend, ensuring that Clinton’s team will spend the Sunday morning news programs playing defense.
Does this wreck Hillary Clinton’s electoral prospects? It’s entirely possible that these new revelations, which are for the most part just reminders of old revelations, will remind the public why they dislike Hillary Clinton. The exodus from her side could be so great that it entirely reverses a four-to-six-point advantage in national polls, swinging at least 270 Electoral College votes to Donald Trump. That is, however, still a high hill to climb. Clinton has benefited from an enthusiasm edge following the release of a toxic candid videotape featuring Donald Trump talking about his love for sexual assault and adultery in 2005. Early voting has begun. Over 15 million votes have already been cast. In the crucial swing state of North Carolina alone, Democrats have an 18-point advantage in the early vote. The numbers for Democrats are equally promising in places like Colorado and Florida, although Republicans have an advantage in Ohio and Iowa. A uniform swing on Election Day against Clinton could overcome these numbers and deliver the election to Trump, but his razor-thin margin of error hasn’t changed. He has a needle to thread and no track record displaying the message discipline necessary for him to thread it.
Yet this awful week of news–culminating in today’s earth-shattering disclosures from the FBI–could have a much more significant impact on the GOP’s down-ballot races, many of which were already tighter contests than the presidential race. Republican incumbents could benefit disproportionately from swing voters turning against Clinton, even if these new details do not fatally undermine her electoral prospects. If, however, Clinton survives and is inaugurated, she will face a hostile political climate like no newly elected president has faced in decades. Whereas Trump could rebrand the GOP as a progressive and xenophobic party with little appeal to the upcoming generation, Clinton could have as deleterious an effect on the Democratic Party’s brand over the course of four years of scandals, investigations, and tawdry allegations. Perhaps Democrats should be cautious about what they wish for.