The Hillary Clinton campaign has reportedly told its donors, staffers, and surrogates that the Democratic nominee was beaten not by Donald Trump, but by FBI Director James Comey. The timing of her slide in the polls came after Comey made a vague and unprecedented announcement that “new” e-mails (they turned out to be duplicates) relating to the investigation into her handling of classified information had been found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Voters who made their choice in the last week went overwhelmingly for Trump.
We may never be able to conclusively prove whether that’s true. But pollster Stan Greenberg, a longtime Clinton ally, sees another factor. Perhaps partly because of Comey, the Clinton campaign stopped making a strong case for her populist economic policies in the closing weeks of the campaign, research by Greenberg’s Democracy Corps found. A poll of 1,300 voters—including 400 who are considered part of the rising American electorate of black, Latino, and other nonwhite voters plus unmarried white women (also known as the Obama coalition)—found they never heard her strongest economic pitches throughout the long campaign. (The poll was conducted on behalf of the Roosevelt Institute and Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes Action Fund.)
For Democrats, the most disturbing news in the Greenberg poll is that unmarried white women, whose support was crucial to Obama, voted for Trump 53–42, about the same as married women did. In 2008, this group went 60–40 for President Obama; in 2012, it was a narrower 52–48, while their married sisters went overwhelmingly for the GOP. Nancy Zdunkewicz of Greenberg Quinlan Rossler Research, the firm behind the poll, warns against Democrats freaking out about that shocking result; she says the comparatively small sample sizes of 519 voters means there’s a margin of error between 5.5 and 6.8 percent. She still thinks the findings are “interesting and newsworthy.”
At least three other pollsters I’m aware of have found a decline in white unmarried women’s support of Democrats (their numbers aren’t public yet), though none have seen as stark a drop as in as Democracy Corps poll. Geoff Garin, who polls for Priorities USA and Planned Parenthood, in fact saw the opposite: He found that Clinton did slightly better than Obama with unmarried women, 58–37, while slightly underperforming with married women. But Garin likewise cautions against drawing big conclusions from small samples: His firm polled 200 women voters on one night; Democracy Corps polled election eve, Election Day, and the day after, and included one and a half times the number of white women as Garin. Either way, Garin agrees with Zdunkewicz that whatever the ultimate result for white unmarried women, there’s evidence that Clinton’s economic message didn’t resonate—with many groups.
“You also have to realize: Increasingly there’s overlap between white working class women and white unmarried women,” says Page Gardner, president of the Democracy Corps poll-sponsor Women’s Voices, Women’s Vote Action Fund. Acknowledging there is some difference between the four or five polls she knows about on this issue, she says one thing is clear: “A strong economic message was not breaking through, especially at the close of the race.”