Hillary Clinton has slipped in the latest polls. A CBS/New York Times poll released today has her tied with Trump, 40 percent to 40 percent, and a Quinnipiac poll released yesterday has her losing to Trump in Florida, 39 percent to 42 percent. The consensus, in the commentariat, is that she has stumbled because of the controversy over her use of a private email server while secretary of state. On July 5, FBI director James Comey announced in a high-profile speech that his agency had finished its investigation, and he detailed its findings, some of which contradicted longstanding claims by Clinton. A number of news reports ascribe her lower popularity, accordingly, to the FBI’s report. “Mrs. Clinton’s shifting and inaccurate explanations of her email practices at the State Department appear to have resonated more deeply with the electorate,” writes the New York Times. The Washington Post notes that the polls were “all taken during or after Clinton’s roughest week of the general election, with FBI Director James Comey’s rebuke over her emails.” In New York Magazine, the link between the email scandal and the CBS/NYTimes poll is made explicit:
The timing of this poll probably had a lot to do with the results: It was taken beginning the very day the FBI findings on Clinton’s email usage were revealed, subsequently dominating the news the whole time these pollsters were in the field.
Well, maybe. Maybe the American electorate was really stunned to hear, after a steady drip of news about Clinton’s emails for over a year, that it was “extremely careless” of her to use a private email server but that the FBI wasn’t going to recommend filing any criminal charges. Maybe. But give the reptile brain a little credit, people. My suspicion is that for most people, at this point, the Clinton email controversy is just a holding place for their feelings about Hillary Clinton more broadly considered.
New York magazine gets the chronology wrong, inadvertently pointing to what may be the real story. Canvassers began asking questions for the CBS News/NYTimes poll not on July 5, the day of the FBI’s report, as New York claims, but on July 8. Polling continued until July 12. In other words, voters were sampled while the news cycle was dominated not by Clintons’ emails but by the death of five police officers in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter rally, at the hands of an aggrieved black veteran.
It’s been well documented for years now, thanks largely to the real-life experiment known as 9/11 and the George W. Bush administration, that, as one Scientific American article puts it, “When people feel safe and secure, they become more liberal; when they feel threatened, they become more conservative.” And what could be more scary to voters, especially white voters, than the events in Dallas? As the Times reported this morning, Trump plays on and his campaign is fueled by whites’ racial fears. It seems possible to me that the sudden drop in support for Clinton might be owed to a psychic retrenchment caused by fear. The good news, for Clinton supporters: It might therefore not be lasting. The bad news: It could and probably will happen again, mass shootings having become a regular feature of American life.
(The Quinnipiac poll, by the way, was conducted between June 30 and July 11, which overlaps with both the Clinton email news cycle and the Dallas shooting news cycle, so maybe the cause there is more mixed.)