In the hours after FBI Director James Comey threw a wrench into Hillary Clinton’s homestretch plans, her campaign launched into an uncharacteristic frenzy of activity, quickly trying to turn the development into a base-energizing tool.
But in her New York headquarters and her battleground state outposts, the news sent shivers down operatives’ spines and immediately had them scrambling to gauge the effect on voters they need most.
Late on Friday, after Clinton went out of her way to hold a rare news conference in Des Moines, Iowa, campaign chairman John Podesta and other top aides convened a private call with previously in-the-dark swing state leaders to update them on the situation, according to participants. The message: Everything is under control.
Clinton’s strategists have projected a confident front, shrugging off any possible impact from Friday’s bombshell news and pointing to weeks of strong early voting and persistent polling leads, even as they blast Comey for re-injecting the email issue into the race with his cryptic letter to Congress. Their goal is now to convert Democrats’ anxiety over the FBI chief’s move into a fury and a rallying point for a base that has flirted with overconfidence in recent weeks.
As campaign manager Robby Mook phrased it in a call with reporters on Saturday: “This situation has created an urgency and intensity from our volunteers and activists.”
Clinton’s team has long believed she’s at her best when she’s under partisan attack, as during last year’s marathon hearing over Benghazi. And, like clockwork, her campaign is asking its prominent supporters to see the FBI’s actions in that light, according to a talking-points memo sent to surrogates on Saturday.
“It’s outrageous, though not surprising, that a Republican chairman would knowingly mislead the public and media by leaking and mischaracterizing this letter,” reads the note, in a reference to Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the House Oversight chairman who has been Clinton’s most enthusiastic antagonist on Capitol Hill.
As Clinton took the stage in Daytona on Saturday afternoon, she was drowned out by boos the second she brought up the FBI. “Some of you may have heard about a letter that the FBI director —” is as far as she got.
But as the headquarters team executes its plan, Clinton’s operatives betrayed some nerves over Comey’s late-stage surprise.
“It is a headache,” said one Clinton adviser spending Saturday on the ground talking to voters and local staff to hear about their initial reactions to the story while the leadership team in Brooklyn sought to turn its all-out rhetorical assault on Comey into a base mobilization device.
It’s a headache that joins a suite of other concerns dogging Clinton in the race’s final days, from Donald Trump’s consolidation of core Republican voters to her continued weakness among white men without a college education.
With more than 16 million votes already cast, any damage to Clinton may come too late for Trump — but will almost certainly put more pressure on her campaign operations in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, the battlegrounds where no votes have been cast due to their lack of early voting.
Clinton operatives believe the news could still energize her base, but that Trump’s core voters are already fully mobilized when it comes to Clinton’s emails. And since the vast majority of voters have already made up their minds, Democrats figure, the news could shift some undecideds — but not necessarily enough to swing any states.
After all, Clinton herself insisted on Friday, most voters “a long time ago made up their minds about the emails.”
Strategists in the states are still concerned, though, that new developments could tamp down excitement among the voters who are eager to stop Trump but aren’t wild about Clinton. And if the saga drags on for nine days without resolution, that dynamic could be amplified, playing into Trump’s strategy.
“We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas. Donald Trump says he can still win, and he’s right,” Clinton said in Des Moines. “He says if he can do the following he can win: Get women to stay home — it’s what he says — get young people to stay home, get people of color to stay home. Now, if you add all that up, that’s more than half the population.”
“Of course Donald Trump is already making up lies about this,” she added during Saturday’s appearance in Daytona. “He is doing his best to confuse, mislead and discourage the American people.”
Now, advisers in the states who spent much of Friday toggling between full-on panic and convincing themselves the news wouldn’t matter are chattering about whether the candidate might feel compelled in the closing days to return to states that appeared safe for her recently, like Michigan, New Hampshire or Colorado.
And, after seeing the beginning of it with the campaign’s first ad buy in Wisconsin on Friday, they’re even more eagerly anticipating the coming barrage of activity funded by Clinton’s historic $153 million bank account as of Oct. 20, led by nearly nonstop battleground travel from Clinton, running mate Tim Kaine, former President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and others, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s camp is monitoring trends in the 38 states where voting has begun, cheering developments like higher-than-usual Latino turnout in Florida, the strong performance in Las Vegas’ Clark County in Nevada — where the campaign expects more than half the voters will weigh in before Nov. 8 — and the apparent tie in Arizona.
But the team has also been hyperattentive to signs of complacency given both her polling leads and the likelihood of Trump solidifying his GOP support. And it’s now launching new organizing and turnout efforts in battleground regions where weak spots are emerging, like Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland.
On Friday in Iowa — a state Mook characterized as “really, really close” despite his candidate’s double-digit lead in early voting, due to high expected GOP turnout on Nov. 8 — Clinton sought to shore up one of her weakest battlegrounds and its notably high population of white voters without college degrees.
Much of the push to win back working-class white men has involved surrogates whose appeal with that group is nearly unparalleled. Sanders has hit eight states for Clinton this month. Bill Clinton has embarked on a series of bus tours through middle-class regions in Iowa, Florida and North Carolina. And the vice president — ever the populist totem, who drew approving chuckles from Democrats on Monday by saying he wanted to take Trump “behind the gym” and fight him — saw his own campaign status amplified last week. He’s made six trips for Clinton this month, but no indication of his importance to her was greater than Thursday’s well-timed leak that he was in the mix to run her State Department.
But Comey’s disclosure Friday also put new pressure on the shoulders of operatives in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, where no votes have been banked. Clinton’s campaign has not been changing its targets in those states due to early voting trends in others, Mook said, but “we have a very tight window on Election Day to turn them all out, so we’re running a more aggressive, a more robust operation for those last few days in those states.”
In Pennsylvania — where Clinton has consistently led largely due to her huge margin in Philadelphia’s suburbs — her long-planned late organizing surge is already underway. This weekend alone, the campaign is hosting dozens of surrogate organizing events featuring figures like Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and members of Congress.
Clinton herself is due back there on Saturday, to appear at a campaign concert headlined by Katy Perry. And the campaign is now set to open more than 350 get-out-the-vote offices in the homestretch, building on the campaign’s 56 field offices, according to an internal memo from state director Corey Dukes.
Already, however, Trump’s local operation is reporting new interest since Friday’s news.
“I went to a couple of Trump headquarters [on Friday], and you can’t get to the door [because they’re so full], people are making calls, collecting signs,” said Rep. Tom Marino, Trump’s Pennsylvania chairman. “The Clintons put too much emphasis just on concentrating on the Philadelphia area, and not on the rest of the state.”
But to Clinton’s backers there, Trump’s push is little more than an echo of Mitt Romney’s failed gambit in late 2012, when the GOP nominee invested there late to try and make up for early-voting deficits elsewhere.
“A big part of the reason why is because when you’re in the final week and you realize so many votes have already been cast in other battleground states and almost zero have been cast in Pennsylvania — and the vast majority will be cast on Election Day — it makes a stronger case for investing in the state,” said Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle.
“The best thing this has done for Trump is change the subject from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, and whenever that happens he does a bit better in the polls,” he added. “That said, will it change many people’s minds or make much of a difference? I’m skeptical.”