This is a guest post by Aaron Kall
Although Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton dominated all three debates to build a solid lead over her Republican rival, Donald Trump, these gains have largely been undone by the FBI’s revelation that they were reopening the investigation into Clinton’s emails.
The inaugural debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in late September was one of the most highly anticipated political events of all time. Clinton undoubtedly had the stronger of the two political conventions in the summer, but a series of high-profile errors on her part put the race at a virtual standstill. During a fundraiser featuring Barbara Streisand earlier that month, Clinton said that half of Trump’s supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables“. This was very reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded video four years earlier that 47 percent of Americans didn’t pay taxes and considered themselves victims. During a September 11th memorial service at Ground Zero in New York City, Clinton felt “overheated” before nearly collapsing near her campaign van. It was quickly disclosed that she suffered from pneumonia, but this diagnosis had been withheld from the public and media until the very last moment.
These two large unforced gaffes erased a sizeable Clinton lead from the summer and created a true horserace heading into the first debate. The Washington Post-ABC News poll and Quinnipiac University national poll showed a Clinton lead of 1-2 points, while the Bloomberg Politics national poll had Trump ahead by 2 points. On the day of the first debate, Clinton had a 1.5 point lead in the Real Clear Politics poll average. Following three debates and six weeks of campaigning, the same exact poll now shows an advantage of 1.7 points. FBI Director James Comey’s bombshell letter to Congress on October 28 regarding secret emails fundamentally reset the race while erasing all of Clinton’s previous gains accrued from her stalwart performance on the debate stage.
Clinton’s preparation pays off
Facing sky-high expectations and a deadlocked race, Clinton delivered a masterpiece performance during the first debate in New York. Trump started strongly out of the gate for the first thirty minutes when the subject matter focused on free trade and outsourcing. Once the topic turned to race and Trump’s questioning of President Obama’s birth certificate, he became somewhat unhinged. Clinton’s one-on-one debate experience and meticulous preparation clearly paid dividends. Trump repeatedly challenged Clinton’s stamina to be president, but he ironically appeared winded while stammering to the finish line.
This was Trump’s first ever debate against a single opponent and his eleven primary events all contained commercial breaks that offered opportunities to confer with campaign staff. Conversely, Clinton was a seasoned veteran of 40 debates going back to her New York Senate contest in 2000. She was assisted by Trump stand-in Philippe Reines and staged practice debates at 9:00 p.m. to mimic the exact conditions of the three presidential debates. This intense preparation enabled Clinton to handily prevail in her trio of debates with Trump. She was deemed victorious by nearly every scientific poll conducted. For example, Gallup put her margin of victory at 34 points, 18 points, and 29 points respectively. CNN/ORC had the spread at 35 points, 23 points, and 13 points. A combined 71 point total edge across the three debates is the largest cumulative advantage in the history of the CNN/ORC poll, eclipsing the 64 point Obama vs. McCain total in 2008. Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s impressive debate performances fundamentally altered the trajectory of the race during the next several weeks. National polls from Bloomberg Politics and Washington Post-ABC News around the time of the final debate in Las Vegas had Clinton ahead by about ten points.
Email scandal returns
Clinton’s smooth glide path to the presidency was abruptly interrupted by FBI Director Comey with less than two weeks remaining before Election Day. He told Congress that agents may have discovered new emails pertinent to the Clinton private server investigation which was thought to have concluded in early July. This October surprise interjected into the race like a grenade and it has fundamentally impacted the landscape of national and battleground state polls. Clinton currently enjoys 1.7 point lead over Trump in the latest Real Clear Politics poll average. The latest Washington Post-ABC News Tracking poll has both candidates tied, but shows Trump holding an edge regarding which candidate is viewed as most honest and trustworthy.
Despite an impressive string of debate victories across different formats and venues watched by over 200 million viewers, the race is nearly tied and almost identically resembles the playing field the day of the first debate. All of the time and hard work spent on grueling debate preparation has been eclipsed by a renewed focus on Clinton’s private email server. She’s repeatedly referred to this as a mistake and said “if I had to do it over again I would obviously do it differently”. With less than a week until election day and given the closeness of the race, that is certainly the understatement of the campaign.
Aaron Kall is Director of Debate and Dean of Students at University of Michigan.