In the beginning of primary season last summer, many saw Hillary Clinton as the candidate with the most experience, name recognition, and centrist appeal. Clinton’s second presidential campaign was predicted by many (including this humbled writer) to be less a campaign and more an extended coronation ceremony. Instead the Clinton campaign has faced numerous setbacks, from the unexpectedly competitive (and image-damaging) primary face-off with Bernie Sanders to the shocking rise of Donald Trump. Yet perhaps one of the most damaging blows to Clinton’s presidential aspirations comes not from outside her campaign, but from her own professional conduct; namely, her use of a private email account during her tenure as Secretary of State. It’s an issue that sounds at first like a small technical matter, but has somehow snowballed into a series of Congressional hearings, FBI investigations, and even a possible indictment. Now the Inspector General has released its report on the matter, the conclusion of a yearlong investigation, adding yet another twist to this increasingly surreal election cycle.
The report generally points out many flaws with the State Department’s systems of records and security (citing similar security issues with Colin Powell), but it also directly attributes wrongdoing to Clinton. By using the private email account for official business, the report reads, she “did not comply with the Department’s policies.” It further states that “At a minimum, Secretary Clinton should have surrendered all emails dealing with Department business before leaving government service.” The report clearly finds wrongdoing on Clinton’s part, but will it affect her chances in the general election in November?
Hillary Clinton has long struggled with a “likeability” problem among the general public. According to a recent FiveThirtyEight poll, Clinton has a 37% “strongly unfavorable” rating among the potential voters. With this rating Clinton sets a new record, as it is higher than that of any previous candidate. If further evidence was needed that we are in an unusually contentious election cycle, Trump actually managed to break the record set by Clinton, with a whopping 53% “strongly unfavorable” rating. In other words, both general election candidates are the two most hated since 1980. Yet similar polling also shows that Trump’s backers are more fervent than Hillary’s. While his controversies seem to only strengthen him among his supporters, her controversies hurt her much more. If he’s bullet-proof, she a bullet magnet.
Trump has already seized on the public’s perception of Hillary as an untrustworthy career politician, branding her with the nickname “Crooked Hillary”. The Inspector General’s findings of professional wrongdoing will further fuel Trump’s narrative of her supposed dishonesty. During the Democratic Primaries, Sanders famously took the high road on the issue of Clinton’s emails, gaining massive applause in a debate when he stated that the public was “sick of hearing about your damn emails.” But Trump is no Sanders, and unfortunately for the Clinton campaign, he has demonstrated that he has no aversion to attacking other candidates on non-policy related issues. His infamous bullying of Jeb Bush during the Republican primary included attacks on Bush’s wife and family (a strategy which was arguably successful considering the Bush campaign’s humiliating implosion). He has similarly gone after Heidi Cruz, and shows no sign of pursuing a different strategy with Bill Clinton. The report’s findings will just give Trump another Clinton controversy to latch onto.
Ultimately it’s difficult to tell what effect (if any) the report’s findings will have on the general election. At this point, the parties are so polarized that it’s hard to imagine anyone being on the fence between Clinton and Trump, let alone changing their vote because of the report. It’s more likely that the question of indictment will be the real threat to Clinton’s campaign. Still, Clinton’s opposition seems to be largely fueled by an almost personal dislike of her as a person. Any findings against her, especially nonpartisan ones, will add fuel to the fire while giving legitimacy to their claims about her fundamental dishonesty. While it probably isn’t enough to sink the whole ship, the report pokes yet another hole in a campaign that is already leaking badly.