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How James Comey’s ‘October Surprise’ Doomed Hillary Clinton’s Candidacy

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Do you remember how you felt last October after you heard that FBI Director James Comey was reopening the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s possible illegal handling of classified communiqués while Secretary of State — just 11 days before the presidential election?

That news, which left me with a sinking feeling that all but erased the confidence I had in Clinton’s prospects after the three presidential debates, was the moment that Donald Trump won the election, according to an analysis released this week by a data firm that tracks the psychological elements below patterns of consumer behavior, moods, and sentiment.

“Many Americans—and particularly those of us working in data-driven businesses—would like to see a credible, fact-based explanation for why the polls seemed to indicate a Clinton victory, but the election instead produced President Trump,” wrote Brad Fay, an executive with Engagement Labs, in the Huffington Post. Fay notes that pollsters were not all wrong, as Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. “But I do believe it was possible to show that the possibility of a Trump victory was rising more rapidly in the final week than opinion polls—and related prediction models—showed.”

Fay said his firm’s behavior-tracking model found what many voters and analysts have suspected, that Comey’s “October surprise” was the tipping point that turned voter sentiment away from Clinton—because people inclined to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt lost their enthusiasm, just as Comey’s announcement buoyed Trump voters.

“We are using a survey to measure behavior rather than opinion data,” Fay explained. “Although it is not our main line of business, every four years since 2008, we have added a few special questions to pick up the daily conversation about presidential candidates during the General Election campaign. Only after Election Day last year did we go back to see what the data showed, and it was startling. The first thing to know is that people were talking very negatively about both Trump and Clinton, in contrast to the mostly positive conversations we see for products and brands.”

“While both candidates were always firmly in negative territory, Clinton nevertheless enjoyed a persistent lead over Trump that opened up after the first debate,” he said. “Both candidates experienced significant drops in the immediate aftermath of the infamous audio recording of Billy Bush and Donald Trump [boasting of sexual assaults], although Clinton still had the advantage.”

But then came Comey’s unprecedented interference in the election, which registered on a much deeper level than the political polls were probing, Fay said.

“Immediately afterward, there was a 17-point drop in net sentiment for Clinton, and an 11-point rise for Trump, enough for the two candidates to switch places in the rankings, with Clinton in more negative territory than Trump,” he said. “At a time when opinion polling showed perhaps a 2-point decline in the margin for Clinton, this conversation data suggests a 28-point change in the word of mouth ‘standings.’ The change in word of mouth favorability metric was stunning, and much greater than the traditional opinion polling revealed.”

“Based on this finding, it is our conclusion that the Comey letter, 11 days before the election, was the precipitating event behind Clinton’s loss, despite the letter being effectively retracted less than a week later,” Fay continued. “In such a close election, there may have been dozens of factors whose absence would have reversed the outcome, such as the influence campaign of the Russian government as detailed by U.S. intelligence services. But the sudden change in the political conversation after the Comey letter suggests it was the single, most indispensable factor in the surprise election result.”

His analysis noted that traditional polling does not take into account how people often react en masse: “behavior predicts behavior,” “the invisible offline conversation matters,” and “humans are a herding species.”

It’s not that traditional political polls aren’t to be trusted, but rather that they expect people to act more rationally than is the case in reality; in other words, they put too much stock in believing what those polled say and too little stock in tracing what those polled may do.

“Political consultants and commercial marketers alike have relied on a model that presumes voters and consumers act according to rational, individual choices that they can express and explain,” Fay said. “What we are learning is that emotion and peer influence play much bigger roles in influencing behavior than previously understood.”

Fay’s takeaway is not just that the FBI director’s interference single-handedly tipped the election away from Clinton and to Trump, but also that if you experienced that announcement as a gut-punch moment, you weren’t alone — and your political instincts were correct.

Editor’s note: Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum wrote a more condensed report on this analysis on March 8.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights.

IMAGE: FBI Director James Comey testifies before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the “Oversight of the State Department” in Washington U.S. July 7, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Imagine If Obama Offered Trump Advice From His Island Paradise

Got your tweet. True, I’m the only living president you can talk to — or who will talk to you. Barack means blessed, don’t ask me what Donald means. Cursed?

So, you’re missing me already? Obamacare not as easy to replace as all that? Senate staying up late and judges giving you grief? The Oval can be lonely when it’s just you and Andy Jackson for company. Gets worse when you watch Saturday Night Live.

But, dude, you’ve made a truly remarkable debut. All the president’s men, all over again? In less than a month, Michael Flynn resigned over his intercepted secret chats with the Russian ambassador, ol’ Sergey Kislyak. General Flynn, national security chief, very nice. I fired Flynn from defense intel because he was stone cold crazy — just your type. All your appointments are crazy, with the possible exception of Neil Gorsuch, sitting in my seat.

I heard your voice like a firebell in the middle of the night — from that beautiful phone — but you know, I can’t be at your beck and call. Here I am on an island in the blue, taking time out from writing timeless prose from the chamber of my mind. The world is waiting for another memoir. Michelle’s here, but she does not send her regards. My wife has serious issues with you, and says Melania does, too.

You’re asking what I remember from the Russian briefing. How could I forget what the FBI told us about hacking and contacts during the campaign? Director Comey was so late to the real spy game because he was pursuing some kind of demon with Hillary and her emails. And somehow he “forgot” to tell the DNC they were being hacked.

And I’m the guy who appointed him. I’m the guy who appointed the most self-righteous Republican in town. And Comey threw the election to you, let’s be honest. That’s what I get for turning the other cheek. It’s my worst flaw.

No, I won’t tell till I’m asked to testify, when that day comes. Investigations are underway and your friends are few on the Hill. You aren’t asking me to be part of a cover-up, right? Let me make this perfectly clear: This unseemly stuff happened on my watch, but I had nothing to do with it. I was too busy being perfect.

Now let me point out that if Flynn hadn’t lied to Mike Pence, we wouldn’t even be having this talk. Mike didn’t like being set up to lie — to the press — because Flynn later admitted he gave him “incomplete information.” In his resignation, Flynn apologized for misleading Mike, but not for the real reason he was gone: his Russian contacts. Nothing about the danger of blackmail. Then he praised himself for his “distinguished service.” A rich brag.

Rich, like you. Moral of the story: One honest man can wreck a whole conspiracy. Just sayin.’ Does the name Alexander Butterfield sound familiar? He told Congress there was a taping system in the Nixon White House.

You say it’s not fair, you haven’t had one day of peace to enjoy White House splendor and joy rides on Air Force One. The Women’s March on Washington came to your doorstep your first full day in office, half a million strong. It wasn’t “just” women’s voices, Donald. It was everybody who ever felt insulted by you. You have a curious talent for cutting anybody down; ask John McCain, one of the Senate Republican votes you need, about being called a loser.

The March set off a contagious wave of protests in airports and downtowns. The travel ban on seven Muslim countries set off quick-burning anger across the country. Firing Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, for taking a stand against the ban fell like a slap against women and the rule of law. Especially now that we know it was Sally who took concerns about Flynn to the White House in the first place. She was disrespected.

May I suggest you resign with honor over an imaginary illness. After a short recovery at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, you could replace Arnold on the “The Celebrity Apprentice.” And then we’ll have that golf game.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit creators.com.

IMAGE: Obama sits on a boat during a kite surfing outing with British businessman Richard Branson during his holiday on Branson’s Moskito island, in the British Virgin Islands. Jack Brockway/Virgin Handout via REUTERS

While New York Times Editors Bickered, Trump (And Putin) Got Away

Now that the horses have left the barn, trotted out the front gate, and are galloping headlong down the county road, editors at the New York Times have taken to public bickering about who left the stalls unlatched.

Not that it’s doing the rest of us much good.

How the Times retains its pre-eminent place in American journalism after decades of politicized bungling at the highest levels continues to mystify. Almost regardless of how many fruitless “investigations” it flogs or catastrophic wars the newspaper enables, its editors invariable response to criticism remains “We’re the New York Times, and you’re not.”

Even when, as in the latest public challenge to the Times’s high opinion of itself comes from inside the building. Public editor Liz Spayd wrote a recent column arguing that regarding Donald Trump’s strange “bromance” with Vladimir Putin, the newspaper definitely left the stall doors ajar.

Headlined “Trump, Russia, and the News Story That Wasn’t,” Spayd’s column argues that despite having plenty of potentially explosive information about an ongoing FBI probe into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties with Russian intelligence operatives, the newspaper sat on the story.

“Conversations over what to publish were prolonged and lively” she writes “involving Washington and New York, and often including the executive editor, Dean Baquet. If the allegations were true, it was a huge story. If false, they could damage The Times’s reputation. With doubts about the material and with the F.B.I. discouraging publication, editors decided to hold their fire.”

Spayd believes the Times was too timid by half. “If you know the F.B.I. is investigating, say, a presidential candidate, using significant resources and with explosive consequences, that should be enough to write.”

It may also be worthwhile recalling, although Spayd somewhat downplays the comparison, how the newspaper handled an investigation of Trump’s rival. The Times treated FBI Director James Comey’s highly irregular October 28 letter re-opening the agency’s fruitless probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails like the Pearl Harbor attack. There was hardly anything else on the front page.

Then on October 31, the Times delivered itself of a front-page exclusive headlined “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” Anonymous “law enforcement officials” said so.  Russian hacking of Democratic emails, the article concluded “was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”

Since the election, the Times has reversed itself: “Both intelligence and law enforcement officials agree that there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the Russian hacking was primarily aimed at helping Mr. Trump and damaging his opponent.”

Too late. Before the November 8 contest most of the national media followed the Times’ lead in soft-pedaling the Moscow connection. Regardless of its blunders, the newspaper’s influence remains canonical. Reporters want to work there pretty much the way whiz kids want to go to Harvard.

Meanwhile, as CNBC reported, none other than “FBI Director James Comey argued privately that it was too close to Election Day for the United States government to name Russia as meddling in the U.S. election.”

Oh no, perish the thought.

Just the other day, President Trump actually blew Comey a kiss at a White House reception. He’s so impulsive and unpredictable, our president.

Comey gets to keep the job.

But back to the internal dispute at the New York Times. Liz Spayd’s column about editorial foot-dragging so annoyed Executive Editor Dean Baquet that he took to the rival Washington Post to characterize it as “a bad column,” with a “ridiculous conclusion.”

Writing to the always provocative Erik Wemple blog, Baquet denies that the Times got played by its sources. “We did not have a story. It was unpublishable speculation,” he writes. “It made no difference what the Feds wanted. She doesn’t understand what happened. We reported the hell out of this, as did other news organizations, and we could prove nothing….When a news organization concludes that it cannot prove something, it doesn’t get to say, ‘I want to show you my notebook anyway.’”

Point taken. Not that it’s ever kept the Times from publishing speculative “scandal” stories over the past quarter century or so. Although Spayd’s too politic to say so, it appears that she could also be speaking on behalf of Times reporters whose stories got spiked. Either way, we’ve likely not heard the last of this intramural conflict.

Of course, the most effective response to an accusation of editorial cowardice is a demonstration of editorial courage. The incoming Trump administration will give surely Baquet and everybody else plenty of chances. As the Times has since reported, Trump took office amid an ongoing counterintelligence probe of numerous associates. Short of a high-level Russian defector, however, it’s hard to imagine Americans will ever know the complete truth.

To catch a runaway horse, it’s helpful to carry a bucket of feed. Chasing them, however, is futile; you’ve got to let the animals come to you.

IMAGE: Donald Trump greets supporters during his election night rally in Manhattan. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Obama’s Best (And Worst) Of Times

As the Barack Obama presidency dwindles down to the last day, there’s no silent amen.

Donald Trump people are swarming the streets around Union Station. These Republicans seem to have come from the country to claim the country, what’s theirs. They are mad that it’s meant to rain on Inauguration Day.

As I make my way through the barricades and bollards to the beloved Capitol, the place looks like a police state. The citadel of democracy looks captured.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Obama can do no wrong. On his way out, praise for his cool dignity and brilliant speaking has been generous. I am one of many Washingtonians who admire him. We will miss him dearly.

However, there were times when the president fell short on the legislative and appointments fronts. Obama would tell you that losing a simple gun control bill in the spring after the Newtown school mass murder in Connecticut was a grave disappointment. He shed tears at the tragedy and seemed to put his political capital on the line.

The narrow loss in the Senate involved a handful of centrist Democrats in rural states switching sides. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, popular in his state, might have been prevailed upon to vote with his party and president.

As president, you have to insist sometimes. Pick up the phone and see if there’s a deal, a trade to work out. Obama’s too sleek to play the heavy to win the wavering votes. That’s for Southern old school pols like Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton.

Almost three years ago, I watched that vote unfurl on the floor. Here’s the thing: Nobody was afraid of Obama, neither friends nor foes in Congress.

In turn, this emboldened those who truly oppose him at every turn for a living. Chief among them is Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a formidable adversary.

During his brief pass as a young star senator, Obama could not wait to get out of there. In the clubby Senate, elders like to be cultivated and chatted up about its rules and customs.

A lot of McConnell’s hostility to Obama was personal. So when the Kentucky Republican blocked the path of Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, it was bold, crafty and rude.

Obama never healed the breach. If he tried over 10 months, we don’t know about it. The public eye only saw that the Senate didn’t hold hearings as a constitutional duty to “advise and consent” on Supreme Court nominees.

McConnell’s brazen move never led to a standoff, because the president didn’t engage on his challenge to the balance of power. That means it can be done again and again. There is now a “precedent” that a president passively accepted a deep insult to his role.

Now we come to Obama’s best and worst appointment. Simple. John Kerry, secretary of state for the last four years, was Obama’s best pick by far. He speaks French fluently; he knows foreign policy from chairing the Senate Foreign Affairs committee; and he knows the price of war as a naval officer in the Vietnam War. He’s worldly, in a word.

Kerry has three major accomplishments to his name: the Iran nuclear deal, opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba and the global climate change accord. He invested each with tremendous knowledge and energy. He also tried to get Israel and the Palestinians to the peace table, and if anything, he tried too hard.

Hillary Clinton paid house calls and mended fences as Obama’s first secretary of state. She was fine, but Kerry was out of this world.

The kicker is that Obama wanted to appoint his national security advisor, Susan Rice, but John McCain, R-Ariz., opposed her. Thanks to McCain, the nation got Kerry.

Comes now James Comey, the FBI director with a lead touch. He forgot to tell the Democratic National Committee the Russians were hacking them. Then he made a harmful hash of Clinton’s emails before the election. Much ado about nothing may have cost her a close election.

You tell me why Obama appointed Comey, a Republican, to act as a Shakespearean dagger in a tragedy. This was the unkindest cut.

A tragedy that starts now: high noon.

IMAGE: U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House during his departure for Canada, in Washington, U.S. June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria