New emails, new poll may signal trouble for Clinton campaign

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the Des Moines Area Community College, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in Ankeny, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The biggest stack yet of emails from Hillary Clinton's term as Secretary of State is expected to be released Monday night, but new poll results indicate the ongoing email controversy is not Clinton's only problem in the race for 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

About 7,000 pages of emails are scheduled to be posted online by the State Department on Monday night, giving fresh momentum to questions surrounding Clinton's behavior as head of the agency. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Monday that about 150 of the emails have been censored because of information that has been retroactively deemed classified.

A judge has ordered batches of Clinton's emails to be made public every month until next January. Previous releases have contained few bombshells, but significant redactions have raised questions about the Democratic front-runner's claims that she did not knowingly receive any classified information on the email account.

Clinton conducted government business using a personal email address on a private server housed in her home, an arrangement that a federal judge has said was a violation of department policy and that Clinton's critics have suggested could open her up to felony prosecution.

Investigators have not accused Clinton of any criminal activity, but they have suggested that some emails did contain classified at the time they were sent. At the very least, the issue threatens to reinforce a feeling among many voters that Clinton is untrustworthy.

"I think it's more of a symbolic issue" at this point, said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. Democratic primary voters seem more concerned about whether trust questions will damage Clinton in the general election than about the emails themselves, unless something truly incriminating appears in future releases.

"It's hurting her, but it isn't quite a death knell, if you will," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. He noted that Clinton continues to lead in head-to-head match-ups with top Republican candidates in polls.

According to Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, voters may not be aware of the specifics of the email contents or the technicalities of the laws surrounding them, but they seem to recognize there are legitimate questions about whether classified information was improperly shared.

"I think voters are at least somewhat aware that it's more than just the fact that she had a private email server," he said.

While the emails have not proven to be a game-changing factor among Democratic primary voters, Professor Steffen Schmidt of Iowa State University said Clinton's campaign is likely "very, very nervous" about the release of thousands of new pages Monday night.

"The emails are, let's call it just additional fuel on the fire, making it harder for her to get to her issues," Schmidt said.

In addition to emails being released on a monthly basis, Clinton will have to face questions about her handling of classified information in high-profile, and likely nationally-televised, settings several times in the coming months.

The first of six Democratic presidential debates is scheduled to air on October 13 on CNN and moderators are sure to challenge Clinton on the issue. She is also set to testify under oath before the House committee investigating the Benghazi terrorist attacks on October 22.

"The spectacle of her being a witness at a House committee hearing is not going to be one that's going to help her," O'Connell said, adding that it will only keep the email issue "churning" in front of voters.

Monday's expected email release comes as a new poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa shows progressive candidate Bernie Sanders now trailing Clinton by only seven points.

While previous polls have shown Clinton's support in the state dropping, this one showing her as the choice of 37% of respondents is the first to place her significantly below 50%.

"The more she campaigns, the less people like her," O'Connell said. "So right now, she's her own biggest enemy. People say every politician is their own biggest enemy, but not like this."

Although it is early in the race, experts agree the latest poll should be cause for concern, especially if other polls start to show similar numbers.

"This is just not where the campaign wants to be," Schmidt said, noting that Clinton is trailing Sanders in New Hampshire in some polls.

"The question is, does she have a floor and does someone like Sanders have a ceiling," Skelley said, pointing out that a lot can happen in the five months between now and the caucus.

"Polling is lots of fun to talk about...but polling is really just snapshots in time," Bystrom said. The debate could shake up the race, since it is the first time voters will really see Clinton and Sanders on stage together.

Bystrom also observed that this poll and others have not shown significant animosity toward Clinton among Democrats. Many Sanders supporters have no strong objection to Clinton and would likely fall in line behind her if she becomes the nominee.

Clinton appears to have recently shifted her strategy for responding to the email questions, after receiving criticism for deflecting inquiries and at times joking about the controversy. At an event in Iowa last week, she acknowledged that she made a mistake.

"My use of personal email was allowed by the State Department. It clearly wasn't the best choice. I should have used two emails--one personal, one for work--and I take responsibility for that decision," she said, according to CNN.

Schmidt, however, said Clinton's words did not go far enough in showing contrition.

"It didn't seem like it was genuine, and that's typical of Clinton. She doesn't want to show any weakness."

"It's shown that she's become a master of the obvious," O'Connell said. He sees Clinton's comments as an acknowledgment that the scandal has hurt her and a signal that her campaign needs to deal with it differently.

"The Joe Biden chatter in and of itself is a direct result of the Hillary Clinton campaign's inability to put the email fiasco behind them," he said, referring to support among some Democrats for Vice President Biden to enter the race.

In the absence of clear criminal activity, one strategist said the fact that the emails remain an issue at all is proof of how poorly the campaign has handled them.

"The Republicans have done zero to document any kind of harm to national security which, normally, would be enough for the issue to wither and go away," said Craig Varoga, a Democratic strategist. "But for whatever reason, Hillary's campaign has not succeeded in in flushing this story and, fair or unfair, the story is slowly but steadily beginning to be seen by some voters as a character issue."

Varoga suggested that Clinton needs to get "third-party validators" to argue her case in the media, such as former prosecutors or national security experts who will say she did nothing wrong.

"Having politicians or campaign strategists make these points will not satisfy voters who are skeptical of anything that has even the whiff of politics to it," he said.

While polls have shown that many Democrats feel Clinton was wrong to use a private email server, and that a majority of voters generally do not trust her, the new Iowa poll raises questions about damaging this particular issue really is.

Among likely Democratic caucus-goers, 61% say the email controversy is not important to them, including 76% of those who support Clinton. Her slipping support appears to be attributable to other factors, then.

"Democrats for the most part don't care about the emails. They just don't care about them...The Democrats are more concerned about Clinton's poor campaign," Schmidt said.

He questioned the campaign's Iowa strategy and the lack of big rallies to get caucus-goers excited.

"I think her struggle as a candidate can be chalked up to much more than the email controversy," Skelley said. Bernie Sanders has shown an unexpected ability to resonate with voters and the swirling rumors about a potential Biden candidacy are also hurting Clinton's support.

However, according to Skelley, Clinton could potentially lose Iowa and New Hampshire and still take the nomination as long as she remains the clear favorite of non-white Democratic voters, since other early voting states have larger minority populations.

O'Connell agreed that Sanders faces a tough road to a nomination unless he wins over a significant number of black voters or Biden enters the race and siphons some minority support away from Clinton.

Regardless of the issue's significance to Democratic voters, it could drag Clinton down in the general election if she gets the nomination, and it remains a hot topic for politicians in the media and on the campaign trail.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney weighed in on the issue in a new CNN interview, saying, "Maybe she was ignorant, but I find that hard to believe...I think she should have known better."

He added that there's "a real possibility" that Clinton's actions disqualify her candidacy for president.

2016 Republican presidential candidates continued to attack Clinton over the email issue this weekend.

Speaking at a town hall in New Hampshire, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said Clinton "doesn't want us to know what she's doing" and blasted her "arrogance."

On ABC's "This Week," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal claimed Clinton is "literally one email away from going to jail."

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has expanded his criticism to question the integrity of Clinton aide Huma Abedin, insisting that she must have shared classified information with her husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who resigned from Congress after a sexting scandal.

Clinton's campaign has called the attack on Abedin, which Trump has offered no evidence to support, "disgraceful."

Trump and other Republican critics have compared Clinton's behavior to that of Gen. David Petraeus, who was prosecuted for sharing classified information with his biographer.

However, Anne Tompkins, the former federal prosecutor who oversaw the Petraeus case, claimed in a USA Today op-ed Sunday that, based on the information released so far, the cases are vastly different.

Tompkins, who is a donor to Clinton's campaign, argued that Petraeus knowingly gave Paula Broadwell sensitive information that he told her was classified and later lied to federal agents about it. Tompkins called Clinton's use of a private email server "regrettable" but said there has been no evidence of criminal conduct in her case.

Clinton's opponents for the Democratic nomination, however, have said relatively little about the issue. Pressed about Clinton's emails on MSNBC Monday, Sanders deferred and pivoted to economic matters.

"This campaign that I am running, let me reiterate is not against Hillary Clinton, or anybody else," he said. "It is for an American people who are sick and tired of seeing the middle-class disappear and huge numbers of people living in poverty."

O'Connell said it is somewhat surprising that Clinton's Democratic rivals have not pounced on the issue.

"One would think that they would be striking while the iron's hot," he said, suggesting that they may be trying to protect their political futures in case Clinton wins.

"You start to wonder whether or not they're in it to win it, or they're in it to basically get a position in Hillary's administration."

According to Skelley, though, given the theme and message of Sanders' campaign, his hesitation to engage is not so unexpected.

"His raison d'campaign, if you will, is not focused on taking down Clinton but highlighting the issues that are really important to him...Attacking Clinton hasn't yet become part of what he's about."

If a Sanders victory starts to look more plausible, that may change, but "he's letting his message do work while Clinton sort of shoots herself in the foot with this."

Bystrom agreed that Sanders can get more mileage with primary voters with his ideas than with attacks on Clinton. He is the only candidate posing a serious threat to her at this point and he has largely taken an "above the fray" approach to the email issue.

Schmidt said the other candidates may get more confrontational in the debates, but, in comparison to the heated attacks Donald Trump and the other Republican candidates are hurling at each other, the Democrats have largely avoided bashing one another.

"I think that they want to be kind of careful, they don't want to trash the person who very likely still will be the candidate of the Democratic Party."

Varoga noted that the issue has hounded Clinton relentlessly despite a lack of attacks from her Democratic opponents.

"The remarkable thing is that there has been no major advertising whatsoever on the email issue, and it has still emerged as a major topic, not one that is mattering a lot to primary voters, but one that is contaminating the pool for many swing voters, who matter in a general election," he said.

Barring the discovery of something unexpectedly damaging in Clinton's emails, observers are skeptical that the issue will prove fatal for her campaign in the primaries.

"She's still the most likely person to win the Democratic nomination...but it's certainly drip, drip, drip the entire way," O'Connell said.

Clinton's campaign showed little sign of allowing the email issue to sidetrack her agenda Monday, trumpeting a significant endorsement by New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen and publishing a Huffington Post opinion piece co-written with Senator Tammy Baldwin in support of legislation to slow "the so-called revolving door between government and the private sector."

As reporters begin to pore over the thousands of new emails on Monday night, what they actually contain may matter less than what they represent: a significant, ongoing political vulnerability that Hillary Clinton has so far proven unable to defuse.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off