March 2, 2015: The date Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election

March 2, 2015: The date Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election
Source: AP
Source: AP

A little before noon on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton gave the farewell almost nobody expected she'd have to deliver, conceding to defeat to Donald Trump in her second quest for the nation's highest office.

Though Clinton's concession speech came only about nine hours after Trump became president-elect of the United States, her fate now appears to have been sealed 618 days before her emotional appearance at the New Yorker hotel in midtown Manhattan. 

It was on March 2, 2015, the New York Times jolted the nascent 2016 contest with its revelation that as secretary of state, Clinton had used a private email account and server to conduct government business, potentially violating federal records-keeping requirements. 

Allies of Clinton — who had yet to formally launch her White House bid — were swift to push back, highlighting the ambiguities of federal records law and accusing the Times of "scandalizing" a nothingburger to peddle the pre-baked narrative that Clinton was secretive, deceptive and untrustworthy.

Hillary Clinton meets the press on Mar. 10, 2015, to address the revelation that she used a private email server as secretary of state.
Source: 
Seth Wenig/AP

But though the email controversy didn't derail Clinton's pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination — thanks in part to Bernie Sanders' declaration that he was "sick and tired" of hearing about Clinton's "damn emails" — it ultimately paved the way for her shocking defeat in the general election. Emailgate provided ammunition for Trump's attacks on his "crooked" opponent, sowed deep public doubts about her honesty and trustworthiness and ultimately shaped the lens through which the mainstream media would cover candidate Clinton, on issues from her paid speeches to her policy positions: as a conniving, often-paranoid figure who harbored a preternatural aversion to transparency and an abiding belief that the standard rules didn't apply to her.

Nothing to see here? By the time the Times dropped its email bombshell, Clinton's popularity had declined from the stratospheric levels she enjoyed when she was a globe-trotting diplomat above the fray of day-to-day partisan mudslinging. 

But even after an occasionally rocky book tour to promote her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, Clinton retained respectable favorability ratings. In one of the last polls taken before the Times' email story, conducted by the Economist and YouGov, 52% of Americans said they viewed Clinton favorably, with 44% holding an unfavorable view. The final CNN/ORC poll before the email story, conducted in November 2014, showed Clinton posting a 59% favorable rating, with only 38% viewing her unfavorably.

Some of the first polls taken after the email story emerged suggested Clinton would be able to ride it out, sustaining little to no serious long-term damage. Gallup pegged her favorable rating at 50% and her unfavorability at just 39%, making her by far the most-liked candidate in either the Democratic or Republican fields. A CNN/ORC poll showed Clinton's favorable rating had dipped a bit, to a still-solid 53%. It also found her cruising to victory not just in the Democratic primaries, but also against the leading Republican candidates, whom she trounced by double-digit margins. 

When Hillary Clinton launched her bid in April 2015, her popularity had declined — but it was still at respectable levels.
Source: 
Mark Lennihan/AP

Nobody thought it would last; a country so polarized would never hand Clinton the presidency in a cakewalk. But if her poll numbers weren't taking a huge hit following the frenzied coverage of her private email setup, then surely it would play little role in deciding an election 20 months away. Right?

Wrong: The early numbers were deceptive. Amid a string of revelations that Clinton's emails contained classified information — something she had adamantly denied — her poll numbers had plunged significantly, with her favorable rating hovering in the low-to-mid 40s and her unfavorable rating reaching the mid-50s. Meanwhile, voters overwhelmingly told pollsters they didn't consider Clinton honest and trustworthy. In a September 2015 Quinnipiac survey, only 32% said those terms described her, while 63% said they didn't. She never really recovered on that score; according to exit polls, nearly 60% of general election voters said Clinton was not honest and trustworthy, while just over a third said she was.

Though Trump remained broadly loathed by the electorate, polls showed that despite FBI Director James Comey's findings, voters were buying the Republican's assertion that Clinton committed a crime in setting up her private server. After Comey announced in July that he would not recommend charges be brought against Clinton, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 56% of voters disapproved of his decision, while only 35% supported it.

When Comey staged an unprecedented, 11th-hour intervention into the election by releasing a cryptic Oct. 28 letter announcing that the bureau was reviewing new evidence tied to the case, he effectively elected Trump president, said Cheri Jacobus, a longtime GOP strategist who left the party in disgust at Trump's nomination.

"What did her in was the Comey letter. Turns out there was no reason," Jacobus said in an interview, noting Comey's Sunday announcement clearing Clinton of wrongdoing.

Hillary Clinton appears in Des Moines, Iowa, on Oct. 28, after James Comey jolted the presidential race.
Source: 
Andrew Harnik/AP

Too late: That announcement vindicated the Clinton campaign's confident proclamations that the new review would lead to the same outcome as the FBI's initial inquiry — but the damage had been done.

Convinced that the Comey letter would intensify public unease about Clinton's judgment, billionaire GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson infused at least $25 million into a pro-Trump super PAC for anti-Clinton ads. Jacobus said that rash of new spending likely tipped the race in Trump's favor in key swing states.

"[Trump voters] were led to believe this was someone who was crooked, a murderer. They didn't have the information to back up the claims but the Adelson money amplified that message," Jacobus said.

"If that hadn't happened, Hillary Clinton would now be president-elect," she added.

Jacobus noted that traditionally Democratic states that broke Trump's way — states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — were decided by about percentage point or less. Pre-Comey polling had shown Clinton's leads in those states relatively secure, and had she won them, she'd be preparing to assume the presidency on Jan. 20.

"If that hadn't happened, Hillary Clinton would now be president-elect."

In each of those states, Trump pulled ahead with only a plurality, not a majority, of the vote, with third party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein together winning between 3.2% and 4.7% support. Had even just a third of those voters gone Clinton's way instead, she'd have won the election.

But many third-party voters who otherwise leaned left on the issues saw Clinton as the corrupt embodiment of a dishonest establishment — a perception Sanders was all too happy to fuel during his primary bid. Though he took her "damn emails" off the table, he was perfectly content to capitalize on the controversy in less explicit ways, dog-whistling that Clinton was "not qualified" to be president and was "clearly lacking" in judgment. Trump gleefully recited those attacks in the general election.

The email story seemed to encapsulate it all: The allegedly bad judgment, the penchant for secrecy, the purported dishonesty. In the end, 63% of voters told exit pollsters they were bothered by Clinton's email server; Trump won them 70% to 24%. 

In a study that goes a long way toward explaining those numbers, the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America (disclosure: this reporter once worked for its LGBT rights project) found that the major evening news casts had devoted 100 minutes of coverage to Clinton's emails this year through Oct. 21; coverage of Clinton's stances on policy issues accounted for only 32 minutes of coverage.

So in the unpopularity contest that was the 2016 election, enough voters spurned a candidate who admitted she made a mistake but had been cleared of any crime in setting up an email server to elect a president whose own companies have destroyed email documents amid ongoing lawsuits; who faces a fraud investigation for the fanciful promises made to those who enrolled in his Trump University scam; broke with decades of precedent by refusing to ever release his tax returns and who appears to have lied about whether his campaign maintained contacts with Russian officials. 

And yes, amid widespread perceptions that Clinton was dishonest, voters elected Trump, 70% of whose rated statements have been deemed false by the non-partisan Politifact. For Clinton, the rate was only 27%.

Jacobus said much of the blame lies with the mainstream media, particularly television networks, which she said sensationalized Clinton coverage while giving short shrift to substantive stories that might cast Trump in an unfavorable light.

"They didn't cover legitimate issues with Trump because I think they were afraid of the blowback. He could incite a virtual mob to weigh in," she said. "You might have a very good reporter and journalist but the executives at the networks wanted the ratings — and as long as they wanted the ratings, they were going to tip-toe around very carefully, because they were eyeballs."

To the extent that Trump did receive unfavorable attention, it was most often because of his often-inflammatory rhetoric — not demands for accountability or apologies on issues like Trump University, his tax returns or his own email scandal.

In the end, polls suggested that voters despised Trump far more than Clinton — which likely explains her narrow victory in the popular vote. But the disproportionate attention devoted to her emails helped foster a sense that the country was presented with two equally flawed candidates, creating the conditions in which the country would elect a man who has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault, has lied flagrantly about issues from his stance on the Iraq War to his net worth and has reportedly asked about the point of having nuclear weapons if he can't use them.

Come the expected Trump recession (or worse), then, just remember how we got there: Emails.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Luke Brinker

Luke Brinker is Mic's politics editor. He is based in New York and can be reached at luke@mic.com.

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