By Susan Larson. Photo copyright Susan Larson for Fredericksburg.Today

The FBI had a “major impact” on the 2016 presidential election, University of Mary Washington Professor Stephen Farnsworth told a gathering in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The director of UMW’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies was keynote speaker at the Fredericksburg Regional Alliance 16th annual membership meeting on November 10.

“The decision at the last minute to release the notification that there was an investigation going on really fed into the narrative that Clinton can’t be trusted,” Farnsworth said. “Now in the end, the FBI of course says there’s nothing to it, but for a whole week the conversation was back about those emails.”

Farnsworth, who’s written five books and is regularly interviewed by the national media, presented an overview of the election two days after a win by Donald Trump shocked much of the country.

“In fairness to the FBI director, it was a rock in a hard place situation,” he said. “If you think about not disclosing that you’ve got a renewed investigation going on, and then it leaks out you had not mentioned to the public you were doing this again — and it would have leaked by the way, because someone in the FBI would have leaked it — then you’d look like you’re part of the Clinton team.”

“The FBI, by what they chose to do, helped the Donald Trump campaign, and that may have been unavoidable, but it is a fact that Clinton was worse off.”

In reviewing the election, Farnsworth presented data from the Edison Research national exit poll of 24,537 election day and early voters.

“One of the key things to consider as we look at this election is the extent to which it is so different from the last one,” he said.

He compared Clinton in 2016 with Obama in 2012. “The main point is that Clinton has consistently underperformed vis-à-vis Obama from four years ago,” he said. No matter what demographic, even those which overwhelming supported Clinton over Trump, they still supported her less than they did Obama in 2012.

Farnsworth said Trump did better with the have-nots than the Republicans usually do, and Trump had the ability to reach out to voters who would not normally vote Republican. He brought new people to the table.

“Those who did not have a great deal of education or did not have a great deal of income were more inclined to support Donald Trump, certainly more than Mitt Romney four years ago, or John McCain before that,” Farnsworth said.

It was an area where the Clinton campaign could have done better, and a significant departure for the Democratic Party, he said.

“I think Democrats have a natural, traditional alliance with working class whites, coming out of the union system and coming out of the New Deal,” Farnsworth said. “These are long term loyalties that working class whites have felt for the Democratic Party. But as the Democratic Party moves in a direction that might be more focused on issues of diversity, there is a sense, at least among some members of the traditional Democratic coalition, that the Democratic Party isn’t there for them in the same way, and that creates an opening.”

This is why several states that have been traditionally Democratic weren’t this time.

“The success of Donald Trump in the industrial Midwest I think is entirely the result of concern for the future,” Farnsworth said. “If people were optimistic, the idea that we needed to make America great again would simply be, “Well, America’s great now.”

“One of the things I think Donald Trump does better than most politicians that I’ve seen over the last 30 or 40 years is he appreciates the cultural milieu in which we find ourselves, and he was very effective in preventing Clinton from taking advantage of what are, objectively speaking, pretty good economic times.”

Normally when the economy is good, the party in power stays in power, Farnsworth pointed out.

“When you look at the price of gasoline, a major force of economic measures that a lot of people look to, the price is lower than it was four years ago, lower than it was eight years ago. The stock market is up, higher than it was four and eight years ago. When you look at a whole series of economic measures … [they] suggest that the American economy as a whole is actually doing quite a bit better than it was not only when Barack Obama took office, but also when Barack Obama was re-elected.”

“Under our sort of normal models of political science, this should be a good year for Democrats. What you see, though, is that the good times are concentrated in some places, and the bad times are concentrated in some places, and the Donald Trump campaign was particularly effective at using the differences in economic opportunity and the experiences of different places to its advantage.”

“Donald Trump, despite his own background, nevertheless as a candidate was very effective in reaching out to those people who feel taken for granted by the Democrats,” Farnsworth said.

Farnsworth himself was surprised by the election outcome. “I did not realize we were looking at as powerful a Trump movement as we were,” he said.

Of all his students, one predicted a Trump win. “She told me, “Nobody I talk to likes Clinton and that’s going to matter, even if she has a better resume.”

“I think in many ways the Clintons are very self destructive,” Farnsworth said. “Of all the members of the Obama cabinet, how many of them built their own server; how many of them insisted on having their own email system away from the Federal Government system? One. Only Hillary. I tend to think that that was a self-inflicted wound.”

“That being said, I think it’s also important to note that the FBI had a major impact on this election.”
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