FBI Director James Comey’s November surprise Sunday likely halted any late surge by Donald Trump, but it’s also highly likely it came too late to provide a big boost to Hillary Clinton.
“Comey’s most recent update is likely too little, too late, to blunt the bulk of damage to the Clinton campaign in most swing states,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon University Poll in North Carolina, one of the nation’s key battlegrounds.
More than 41 million people have already voted nationwide, according to data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project. In North Carolina, 44 percent of registered voters have already cast ballots, and similar heavy turnouts have been reported in other pivotal states.
At this point, the Comey news “will likely only impact the decisions of the largely undecided voters who both follow news very closely and have yet to early vote. This is a very small group,” Husser said.
Comey jolted the presidential race Sunday for the second time in 10 days when he told congressional leaders the agency stands by its position earlier this year against recommending charges against Clinton in connection with her email server.
The chief political impact is likely to be stopping Trump’s momentum. The Republicans will have a difficult time pivoting and making Comey a villain again, said Spencer Kimball, adviser to the Emerson College Polling Society, in Boston, which surveys several battleground states.
“Trump will have difficulty spinning this as a positive for his campaign,” Kimball said.
Trump had charged a “rigged system” after the director’s original recommendation Clinton not be charged. Then after Comey announced Oct. 28 that the FBI was taking “additional investigative steps’’ involving the emails, Trump said Comey had “guts.”
Momentum was building against Clinton, as conservative commentators and websites then suggested indictments were a real possibility. The benefit she received earlier last month, when multiple women accused Trump of sexual assault following the release of a decade-old video in which he bragged about groping women, nearly evaporated.
He owes Secretary Clinton, and the country, an apology for speaking loudly out of ignorance earlier.
Mark Mellman, Democratic pollster
As many as 15 states were regarded as too close to call Sunday.
In North Carolina, Trump led by an average of 1.5 points in the latest RealClearPolitics average. Florida, too, is close, and early voting turnout has been heavy, with about 6 million registered voters casting ballots. A new CBS/YouGov poll taken last week had Clinton and Trump tied.
Republicans vowed to keep pushing the idea that Clinton can’t be trusted. “The FBI’s findings from its criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton’s secret email server were a damning and unprecedented indictment of her judgment,” said GOP Chairman Reince Priebus.
“The FBI found evidence Clinton broke the law, that she placed highly classified national security information at risk and repeatedly lied to the American people about her reckless conduct.”
He knows Clinton is dogged by an image fixed in voters’ minds long ago. A total of 83 percent told the McClatchy-Marist Poll released Friday that Clinton had done something wrong. Fifty-one percent said she’d done something illegal and 32 percent said she’d done something unethical but not illegal. Just 14 percent said she’d done nothing wrong.
Clinton led Trump 44-43 in the latest McClatchy-Marist Poll, released Friday
Comey’s initial announcement reshaped the race, and Republicans analysts Sunday were wary that Clinton had time to gain significantly.
“Millions of voters have cast their ballots in the interim, and this latest letter can’t turn that around,” said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman called Comey’s letter “welcome news,” but said the Sunday announcement “remains a classic instance of ‘too little too late.’ ”
Trump supporters waiting to see him in Loudon County, Virginia, were furious at Comey and skeptical that the FBI had actually read the emails. The news only solidified their belief that Clinton and the federal government are corrupt.
They were standing outside chanting “Lock her up” more than three hours before Trump was scheduled to arrive. “He’s spineless, gutless,” Jimmy Lewis, 53, a Loudon County business owner, said of Comey. “I think somebody probably got to him. You don’t open up 650,000 emails and not find anything new.”
Jack Kelly, 52, of Hamilton, Virginia, said he believed “there’s something really wrong with this. They told us it would take a long time and now suddenly they are done? Something isn’t right.”
Clinton’s campaign had a measured response.
“We have seen Director Comey’s latest letter to the Hill,” Clinton campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said. “We are glad to see that he has found, as we were confident that he would, that he has confirmed the conclusion that he reached in July, and we’re glad that this matter is resolved.”
The Democrats’ best hope is that wavering voters will view the FBI director’s letter as vindication for Clinton.
Criminal investigations remain secret because of the damage that can be done to someone’ reputation, should it become public, said Barry Coburn, a former federal prosecutor who opposed Comey’s initial disclosure. It’s the same reason why disclosing a grand jury investigation is a crime.
“It is a positive thing that the FBI acted now to attempt to remove the taint of investigative activity from Secretary Clinton before Election Day,” he said. “This development also underscores the sheer irresponsibility of recent comments by Mr. Trump and his surrogates to the effect that Mrs. Clinton was going to be indicted or was going to go to jail.”
William G. Douglas and Lesley Clark contributed to this article.