As most know, Trump has been making a significant deal out of the Clinton email issue, with a resurgence on the topic occurring recently due to certain comments from the FBI investigator.

Is there any historical example of a similar situation to this, in which a major candidate (not necessarily presidential, or even American) has been accused by some of possible breaches of some law or governmental policy, and the opposing major candidate has used it as a significant line of attack in their campaign? And if so, was this found to be beneficial or detrimental to their campaign?

Barring such historical evidence, is there any current evidence, from polls or otherwise, indicating whether this approach is an effective one?

Please note that I am not seeking opinions on whether the issue is a valid one, or whether Clinton is guilty, or whether Trump is being hypocritical. I'm asking whether the approach is, on the whole, politically savvy or suicidal.

My own instinct, in the absence of evidence, is that those who are on the fence aren't likely to choose to vote for Trump due to this, and thus there are no real benefits - that Trump is effectively "preaching to the choir", and thus potentially squandering an opportunity to get fresh attention from those who are truly on the fence. Is my instinct justified?

EDIT: As so many people seem to be failing to understand what is being asked, here, let me explain it again: I want to know, ultimately, whether Trump's decision to focus on this particular topic is beneficial or detrimental to his campaign - NOT whether people deserve to know about it, NOT whether the topic is legitimate or fabricated, and NOT whether it is "right" to focus on it.

In the shortest way of putting it: Is this focus having a positive or negative impact on Trump's chances of winning?

And to be clear, I don't want vague argument about the impact from a partisan perspective. Think of it this way - if, 500 years from now, some political historian were looking back at this election, had all the data and a detail-cleansed version of the series of events (with no knowledge about policy positions or party alignment), and had to determine whether each of Trump's campaign decisions were beneficial or detrimental, would such a historian determine this particular campaign decision to be good or bad for his campaign?

EDIT: OK, let's try framing it in yet another way:

There are four possible ways that the Trump campaign can react to the announcement by Comey and the ensuing discussion, etc...

  1. Attack Hillary Clinton, make as much noise about it as reasonably possible, thus potentially drawing more attention to the issue in the hopes of weakening the Clinton campaign.
  2. Defend Hillary Clinton, assert that the issue that should concern voters is ability to run the country, and thus look like a "positive campaign" and a "good guy" for defending her.
  3. Go quiet, and let the media focus on Clinton, removing any chance of any sort of gaffe or counterargument, thereby allowing the "attack" to continue without getting any "mud" on themselves.
  4. Pivot entirely to another topic and treat this as nothing but a distraction, thereby effectively gaining some of the benefit from each of the first three options.

Each of these has benefits and drawbacks. What I am asking is, from the perspective of political science, is the decision made by the Trump campaign to go for option 1 (a) a net positive, and (b) the best option? Surely this is a topic that has been studied extensively by experts in the general case (not specific to Trump)?

  • 5
    IMO, usually the objective of this and other smear campaigns is not as much getting people to vote Trump as getting people not to vote Hillary; also you assume that people "on the fence" will try to inform themselves objective and independently and will not be swayed by Trump supporters (which will "inform" them that any investigation by the FBI means automatic guilt, prison terms and disqualification for presidency). Take a look at the couple of Trump's "wannabe operatives" that frequent this site and their comments to see how it works.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 8:30
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    @SanJuan, an FBI criminal investigation isn't a smear campaign.
    – user9790
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 13:12
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    See my point? For example, just two days ago one of the above commenters was accussing the FBI and Comey personally of being corrupt (politics.stackexchange.com/questions/12806/…). Don't understimate the power of repeating assertions, true or false, that is the reason why you are shown the ad for the same car one hundred times instead two or three. It may not work for all the people, but it works.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 13:42
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    And of course, even if the mail affairs attacks are not a good way of getting a better ratings, it might be the best one that is still available to Trump (a little too late for new campaign promises, too many racial insults to undo..). Trump campaign is seriously lagging in the polls, so something must be done. And this approach has the additional benefit of keeping Trump out of the spotlight, which prevents further embarrasments.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 13:49
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    @KDog - same as with user1450877 - I don't want that discussion in here. This is NOT about whether Clinton has done wrong, or whether the FBI is justified, or anything like that. This is about the politics of Trump's decision to focus on it, and ONLY that.
    – Glen O
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 13:59

4 Answers 4


I can't see anyone who plans to vote for Clinton going "well, Trump points out her email issue, so I won't vote", either.

That's not how it works. Hillary Clinton voters don't care what Donald Trump says. But Trump talking about it has three advantages (from Trump's perspective):

  1. It fires up his base.
  2. It keeps Trump from talking about his own scandals.
  3. It keeps the discussion in the news.

Firing up his base isn't useless. Reminding Republicans that Hillary Clinton isn't fit to be president downplays Republican concerns about Trump. This is especially important to Trump, as many Republicans don't see him as much of a Republican.

Keeping Trump from talking about his own scandals is huge. Trump's rampant ego keeps negative information in the news long past its sell-by-date. Note that the Access Hollywood tape didn't have nearly as much impact as the refutation of Trump's denial that he engaged in that kind of activity. One of the largest problems is his attempts to denigrate his accusers. Having the candidate go around saying that his (now thirty years older) accusers aren't pretty enough to grope, suggests that the accusation is true. Even if not about that particular accuser. Practically anything that Trump says has to be better than that.

Trump talking about it means that the news is talking about it. And while most people will disregard the Trump and Clinton lines, people do pay attention to what other commentators say. Also, Clinton supporters may find themselves disagreeing with the Clinton lines. For example, the notion that giving information to voters is "interfering with the election" may rouse diehard Clinton supporters, but it leaves swing voters cold without the Russian connection. It reinforces the Trump message that the elites are trying to steal things from ordinary slobs like him. Now, Trump may better fit the description of an elitist than an ordinary slob, but rather than make that point, the Clinton surrogates are reinforcing his message.

Someone who actually supports Clinton is unlikely to switch. Someone who was planning to vote for Clinton as an alternative to Trump might well not vote.

There are very few undecideds. 95% of all voters have picked a candidate. Focusing on undecideds is probably the wrong place now. It's easier to knock off a Clinton voter than to bring home a true undecided who is interested in policy.

Access Hollywood tape

I find it interesting that you ask for non-US and non-recent examples when we have an example from the current election. Hillary Clinton has consistently run ads and sent postcards quoting things that Trump has said about women. Yet those also fit this same pattern. Everyone already knew about them. Then the Access Hollywood tape came out with audio of Trump saying something particularly obnoxious. And she and her surrogates spent more time talking about this same issue.

If it's silly for Trump to talk about Clinton's ethical and professional failures, it's equally silly for Clinton to talk about Trump's moral failures. Yet you didn't choose to criticize that recent example.

One reason may be that the Access Hollywood release seems to have been effective. Trump was at a relative low point and it drove him lower (see the Real Clear Politics average for example; Trump at -3 on October 7th and down to -7 on October 18th). It has also kept other revelations out of the news. Without that, we'd have likely spent more time talking about WikiLeaks revelations. Those would have played better without other distractions.

The worst thing that one can say about the Access Hollywood tape is that it may have been released too early. Its effect has been fading as Trump started switching to attacking Obamacare premium increases. And it's pretty much gone now.

The actual candidate

The candidate is not some Republican with the messaging discipline of a Ted Cruz or a Marco Rubio. Trump is the candidate. Talking about the email scandal plays up Trump's strengths (sound bite insults and rousing crowds) and deemphasizes his weaknesses (not knowing details and avoiding losing arguments). It works with both his base and with Never-Trump Republicans.

Under other circumstances, e.g. earlier in the campaign, the candidate would be well served to be quieter. Not do as many appearances. But Trump's behind and there isn't much time left.

A different candidate might be able to leave the scandal to surrogates and concentrate on her or his own policies. But Trump is as likely to make a gaffe when talking about policy as not. And that could allow the Clinton campaign to change the discussion.

The scandal is one of the safest things for Trump to discuss.

  • "Yet you didn't choose to criticize that recent example" - I'm not American. I don't know how much Clinton's supporters have been pushing Trump's moral failures, just how much Australian news has been covering it, so it wasn't a matter of "choice", but of information. And I asked a question, I didn't put forward an answer. Your example is an interesting one. There is an element of difference (moral vs legal questions), so there may be difficulties drawing a full comparison, but it's certainly worth further consideration.
    – Glen O
    Commented Nov 1, 2016 at 5:01

Well those people who think Trump will be a good president are already locked in. I dont think that anyone seriously believes that he can convince a signifigant number of people who think otherwise to change their mind. And there are very few undecideds who are likely to be convinced that Trump is the better candidate because of his positions.

However, from the perspective of the middle and right, there is plenty of reasons to think that Hillary would be a far worse person based on the contents of her emails. Please note this is not about who would be a better president. The question now is who is the better "Person" to represent our country. I also do not know that this will move those undecided's either but it has moved some of the people who where he ardent supporters into people choosing not to support her. Getting someone to not vote for Hillary even if they are not going to vote for The Donald is effectively a win for Trump.

Is it a productive line of attack? I do not know. But he does better on the attack of others than he does vamping about his own positions. So I would say at the worst its not a bad thing for him.

  • 1
    This answer is nothing but opinion. I am not interested in opinion, I am interested in factual comparison of the politics. As far as this question is concerned, I don't care about whether the "attack" is legitimate or trumped up (no pun intended), I don't care whether it is beneficial for people to know about the email claims. I just want to know whether the choice to focus on it benefits Trump's campaign, or harms it, in a completely objective sense.
    – Glen O
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 5:41
  • @GlenO - What objective measurement would you have us use? How do you isolate the effect of his attacks versus the effects of the FBI investigation being reopened, and continued drops from wilileaks Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 14:45
  • That would be why I was seeking historical comparison along the way. Beyond that, I disagree with the assertion that you can't tell the difference. But let me put it in another way - think of it purely from a political science perspective - there are four possible reactions Trump could have to the email issue right now - attack, defend ("stick up" for Clinton, to look like a "good guy"), stay quiet (let the media do the work), or pivot to another topic. Trump has chosen to attack. Surely there are past examples that can compare the options?
    – Glen O
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 14:58
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    @GlenO - I think you miss the point. The US is very different from most of the rest of the world. And Trump is a unique presidential candidate even for us. Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 14:28
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    @GlenO - For the record... My opinion was pretty darn spot on. Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 14:47

In general, when one has an event that can be influenced by a host of factors, analyzing the impact of any one of them is notoriously difficult. That said, Nate Silver, whose business is to analyze this kind of thing, thinks that the Comey Letter (stating that the FBI was reopening its investigation into Clinton's emails) probably cost her the election. Granted, that was FBI focus on her emails, not Trump focus on her emails. But it does suggest that her emails were a negative for her, and therefore obviously a positive for Trump.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, the answer to the question appears to have been yes.


In the shortest way of putting it: Is this focus having a positive or negative impact on Trump's chances of winning?

Clearly, it had a positive impact. I think most people who analyzed the campaign and, even the ones who tried to understand what happened after the fact, didn't see that Trump's gains in the polls were at the expense of Gary Johnson much more than at the expense of Clinton. Johnson started at 10%. He ended up receiving 3%. Clinton's approval essentially stayed where it was (she may have gained 2% when Jill Stein dropped from 3% to 1%). Creating the perception that Clinton broke the law was a very effective way to sway Libertarians (who are more or less 1-issue voters on strict Constitutional compliance) to switch their votes to make sure that someone who seemed to have no regard for the laws was not elected. It was not an announced strategy, but it clearly worked.

  • You seem to go from plain facts (poll changes) to unsubstantiated guessing as to the reasons why the polls changed. Do you have any evidence to back up that conclusion about reasoning?
    – user4012
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 14:56
  • I'm sorry, but your answer is a classic example of the post hoc fallacy. It's not enough t say "Trump did this, his numbers went up, and Johnson's numbers went down. Therefore, it worked" - you have to be able to provide evidence that it was Trump's focus on Clinton's emails that caused the change, rather than, say, Johnson being an inadequate campaigner or America's first-past-the-post system resulting in voters defaulting to voting for their lesser of two evils anyway.
    – Glen O
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 14:59
  • @Glen O, you might be right that posting polls through the day made it more likely that some of the Johnson (and Stein) voters switched. But they were switching throughout the campaign, too. I mentioned that Johnson peaked at 10%. But he was polling at 4-5% the night before the election. And he got 3% on the day of the election. You might argue that this is within margin of error, but that's 1 out of every 3 Johnson voter who decided overnight not to vote or switched to Trump. I don't know what you mean by "do you have any evidence". It is well-known which issues are Libertarians' pathos.
    – jinha87
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 20:05
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    You seem to confuse argument with evidence. You point out two things - that Johnson's poll numbers dropped and those went to Trump, and that Libertarians tend to be single-issue voters. These two claims are entirely reasonable (although the second could do with a bit of justification). What you haven't shown, what needs evidence, is that these facts are connected specifically to Trump's focus on Clinton's emails, rather than any of the multitude of other issues that those voters may have reacted to as their primary concern.
    – Glen O
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 13:45
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    "No one discusses why the highest (historically) support of a Libertarian candidate (10%) dropped to the same levels as it has been historically." - fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-went-wrong-for-gary-johnson ... and Johnson's levels at the election were by quite a distance a record for the Libertarians, with the previous record being his 2012 numbers, where he got less than a third of what he got in 2016. From about 1% in 2012 to 3.27% in 2016.
    – Glen O
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 14:50

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