FBI Director James Comey testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington in July. (Michael Reynolds / European Pressphoto Agency)
Democrats have found no shortage of scapegoats for Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election.
But Clinton’s top pollster is sticking with a simpler explanation: blame FBI director James Comey.
"We were winning this campaign," pollster Joel Benenson told former senior White House adviser David Axelrod during an event this week at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. "We came out of the third debate consolidating our lead… and we get to 11 days out and the director of the FBI takes an unprecedented action and throws a monkey wrench into the campaign that you couldn’t have anticipated."
Benenson, who served as Clinton’s chief strategist and also polled for President Barack Obama’s winning campaigns in 2008 and 2012, said that he’d warned Clinton long ago that she faced an uphill battle as she tried to follow a two-term Democratic president. He acknowledged during the Monday night event that on the eve of the election Clinton’s team had only expected to lose two of the ten key swing states — Florida and North Carolina.
But he blamed Comey’s October announcement that the FBI had discovered emails which might be linked to its investigation of whether Clinton mishandled classified information for Trump’s victory, not missteps by Clinton and her team.
Comey’s statement "stalled our momentum," Benenson said, suggesting it encouraged voters who had previously third party candidates to break in Trump’s favor. "It stalled the momentum of our defectors coming back to us [from third party candidates] in enough numbers and it helped animate [Trump’s] defectors."
"I’m not going to second guess our campaign — I think we ran a damn good campaign and were in a position to win it and obviously I don’t like the result."
Axelrod, who was an at times outspoken critic of Clinton despite supporting her campaign, seemed to disagree, but noted that he too had lost many races in his political career and added, "You’re never as smart as you look when you win and you’re never as dumb as you look when you lose."
Grabbing Axelrod’s knee, a smiling Benenson shot back, "You’re saying I look dumb?"
Axelrod demurred, describing Benenson as "one of the smartest people I’ve ever met."