But the effect of those factors — say, Clinton’s decision to give paid speeches to investment banks, or her messaging on pocket-book issues, or the role that her gender played in the campaign — is hard to measure. The impact of Comey’s letter is comparatively easy to quantify, by contrast. At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by 3 or 4 percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona. At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so. Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.
And yet, from almost the moment that Trump won the White House, many mainstream journalists have been in denial about the impact of Comey’s letter. The article that led The New York Times’s website the morning after the election did not mention Comey or “FBI” even once — a bizarre development considering the dramatic headlines that the Times had given to the letter while the campaign was underway. Books on the campaign have treated Comey’s letter as an incidental factor, meanwhile. And even though Clinton herself has repeatedly brought up the letter — including in comments she made at an event in New York on Tuesday — many pundits have preferred to change the conversation when the letter comes up, waving it away instead of debating the merits of the case.
The motivation for this seems fairly clear: If Comey’s letter altered the outcome of the election, the media may have some responsibility for the result. The story dominated news coverage for the better part of a week, drowning out other headlines, whether they were negative for Clinton (such as the news about impending Obamacare premium hikes) or problematic for Trump (such as his alleged ties to Russia). And yet, the story didn’t have a punchline: Two days before the election, Comey disclosed that the emails hadn’t turned up anything new.
What the heck is going on here? Why was the Times giving Comey’s letter such blockbuster coverage and at the same time going out of its way to insistthat it wouldn’t affect the outcome?
The evidence is consistent with the theory that the Times covered the Comey letter as it did because it saw Clinton as the almost-certain next president — and Trump as a historical footnote. By treating the letter as a huge deal, it could get a head start on covering the next administration and its imbroglios. It could also “prove” to its critics that it could provide tough coverage of Democrats, thereby countering accusations of liberal bias (a longstanding hang-up at the Times). So what if it wasn’t clear from the letter whether Clinton had done anything wrong? The Times could use the same weasel-worded language that it often does in such situations, speaking of the Comey letter as having “cast a cloud” over Clinton.
In a sense, the Times may have made a version of the same mistake that Comey reportedly did, according to the very detailed recounting of the FBI director’s decision that the Times published last month. The newspaper’s editors and reporters thought Clinton had the election in the bag. And they didn’t consider how their own actions might influence the outcome and invalidate their assessment. That influence was substantial in Comey’s case and marginal for the Times, as one of many media outlets covering the story. But the media’s choices as a whole potentially mattered, and the tone of campaign coverage shifted substantially just as voters were going to the polls.
This doesn’t explain why Comey handled the letter in the way he did but it is an interesting analysis of the media’s coverage.
Update 19 May 2017: Having thought about this and listened to a couple of New York Times podcasts after Trump fired Comey, what I think happened is this. Comey thought that the Democrats would win. He was therefore concerned about how the Republicans would investigate why the letter wasn’t revealed etc. In other words, he chose loyalty to the FBI (avoiding any claim of political impropriety) over loyalty to the country (an er actual election). In fairness, I think virtually anyone successful in a bureaucracy would have made the same call. Local loyalty is always strongest – soldiers die for their mates (the platoon), not the Army, not the Country.