Elections

Now it’s up to voters to decide if Clinton’s email use matters

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama make their way across the tarmac to greet guests during a visit to Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, July 5, 2016, after FBI Director James Comey said his agency would recommend that she not be charged in connection with her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama make their way across the tarmac to greet guests during a visit to Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, July 5, 2016, after FBI Director James Comey said his agency would recommend that she not be charged in connection with her use of a private email server while secretary of state. AP

The mixed FBI judgment on Hillary Clinton’s email practices – that she’d shown extreme carelessness in her handling of classified information but not enough to merit criminal charges – left Democratic Party loyalists in a familiar place: relieved, exasperated and yet hopeful, with fingers crossed, that once again the Clintons had won.

It was another chapter in what’s now a 25-year-old saga that has seen Hillary and Bill Clinton survive controversies that usually end political careers. Think Bill Clinton’s denials of an extramarital affair early in his 1992 campaign for the presidency or his 1998 impeachment after the separate Monica Lewinsky dalliance exposed him to obstruction-of-justice claims.

Yet he wound up completing his term in 2001 with a 66 percent Gallup approval rating and his wife had been elected to the Senate.

The trust issue will stick around for a while.

David Paleologos, Suffolk University Political Research Center

The email mess that came to the public’s attention a year ago had been a weight around Hillary Clinton that she couldn’t shake, not with attempts at humor or lengthy explanations. Now it’s left to voters to settle whether the finding by FBI Director James Comey that no criminal charges are merited will put an end to the controversy.

In focus groups in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Florida throughout this year, McClatchy found that the emails kept coming up among undecided voters. While most people were not familiar with the emails’ contents, they thought this much: They were stark evidence that Clinton was arrogant and untrustworthy.

The question now: Does Comey’s exoneration counter that view, even though the FBI found that Clinton and her aides “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information”?

FBI director James Comey announced Tuesday that he recommends no charges in the Hillary Clinton email probe. However, Comey said there's evidence that Clinton and her aides were "extremely careless" in the handling of classified information. The r

Democratic insiders were nearly universal in their praise for the FBI’s recommendation of no charges.

“Most voters will see this as Secretary Clinton doing 67 mph in a 65 mile zone and the officials say, ‘No ticket,’ ” said Bob Mulholland, a Chico, California-based Democratic consultant and convention superdelegate for Clinton.

Reaction from rival Bernie Sanders and his backers was largely muted. National Nurses United, one of the Vermont senator’s most vocal supporters, had no comment. Sanders himself had no statement, and he was tweeting about trade and environmental change in the immediate hours after the FBI announcement.

Sanders has been wary of sharply criticizing Clinton over the email controversy, calling it a “very serious issue.” His focus is on affecting the party platform, which party officials will be writing later this week.

In a rally in Charlotte on Tuesday, President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton rallied North Carolina voters, criticizing Trump's tweets and asserting that America already is the greatest country in the world.

To most Democrats, the announcement ends the threat of having a presidential candidate in legal jeopardy.

“No more dealing with the cloud of an FBI investigation into her server hanging over her or the drip drip of bad news,” said Doug Thornell, managing director of SKDKnickerbocker, a political consulting firm that specializes in Democratic campaigns.

After today, Clinton will be in a stronger position.

Doug Thornell, Democratic consultant

Comey, though, left skeptics with plenty of fodder: Notably, that 110 emails sent or received on Clinton’s private server contained classified material. He said seven of those were classified at one of the highest possible levels, Top Secret/Special Access Program.

“There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position . . . should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation,” Comey said.

That sort of finding is likely to hurt the former secretary of state. “It plays right into the perception that Clinton is not trustworthy,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former media consultant who’s now an associate professor of advertising at Boston University.

That’s especially true with a segment of voters that David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, calls the “haters” – the roughly 1 in 5 people who dislike both Clinton and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Forty-four percent of them were undecided in a recent Paleologos poll.

Clinton leads Trump by 41.1 percent to 36.4 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics average of national polls

Paleologos thinks that many of those “haters” were Republicans who were having trouble warming to Trump. As Republicans maintain a drumbeat of criticism of Clinton, pounding away at the idea that she can’t be trusted, Trump might benefit, he said.

“People who dislike Trump aren’t as deeply rooted” in their opinion as those who dislike Clinton, Paleologos said.

Republicans were eagerly playing to that audience Tuesday. GOP Chairman Reince Priebus said the findings “confirm what we’ve long known: Hillary Clinton has spent the last 16 months looking into cameras deliberately lying to the American people.” And Republican calls for a special counsel went unheeded.

The email controversy, though, might have another unpredictable result in this year of surprises: boosting support for third-party candidates. Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, is averaging 7.4 percent support in national polls, according to the RealClearPolitics average. Green Party candidate Jill Stein is at 3.9 percent.

The more the Republicans pounce, and the more the Clinton emails are discussed, “what you’re going to get is more disgruntled voters,” said Berkovitz of Boston University.

That’s why, he figured, “This could be a boost for everybody.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavids

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