FBI Director James Comey | Courtesy of Melissa Golden — Redux

Did the FBI’s October Surprise Change the Presidential Race?

Final Pre-Election Look at Shifting Polling Averages and Use of Hashtags Attacking Clinton

Michael Cohen
Published in
5 min readNov 4, 2016

Going into the final weekend of the campaign, it looks like the dominant storyline has remained the FBI reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Setting aside whether or not this had precedent — the folks at Politifact think it could go either way — let’s look at how it has impacted the race for the White House.

Republicans Return Home in Polls

With the benefit of a week of polling, we can now see the the trajectory of the race and it is closer than it was before the FBI released its letter. But it is also true that the race was tightening on its own without the letter.

On October 18, the day before the final debate, Clinton led Trump in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average by 7.1 percent, which is a pretty solid lead and outside the margin of error for many national polls. Up to that point, the trends suggested that Clinton’s support was gradually increasing and that Trump was fading.

But over the next few days, Clinton’s polls flattened while Republicans started to find their way home. By Thursday, the day before the FBI released its letter, the lead was down to 4.6 percent. At the same time, Libertarian Gary Johnson’s polls were sliding while Trumps were climbing. On October 18, Johnson was at 6.6% and his polls are now at 4.1 percent. Jill Stein’s polling has been stable at around two percent.

Four-Way General Election Polling | Courtesy of Real Clear Politics

So what does this all mean? On its face, it looks like Republicans were simply finding their way home from considering Johnson as an alternative. But this misses the impact of the October 28 news. RCP had Clinton ahead by 3.9 percent and it closed to a 1.9 percent lead on November 2, which is basically a statistical tie.

But two days later, it went back to 2.6 percent, which is still within the margin of error of most polls but shows Clinton recovering from the news. It is important to note that Clinton only trailed Trump in one poll, by one point, from ABC/Washington Post. There were two ties: one from the same group and the other from the right-leaning Rasmussen Reports.

Going into the final weekend of the 2016 presidential campaign, Clinton seems to have held her lead over Trump despite the FBI investigation.

Spike in Republican Twitter Buzz

Throughout the campaign, we at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management’s PEORIA Project have been tracking the conversation on Twitter. Our partners at Crimson Hexagon have given us a unique data driven look at which hashtags have dominated the platform and how Clinton and Trump’s accounts have performed during important moments, like the conventions.

In the wake of FBI Director Comey’s letter to Congress, we took another look at the two most common hashtags that Trump and his supporters have used over the campaign to attack Clinton.

Lock Her Up: The notion of locking up Hillary Clinton for her alleged crimes, including the unlawful use of a private email server while Secretary of State, landed hard in the Republican National Convention halls on July 17 and immediately on Twitter. To date, the #LockHerUp has been in 981,130 posts and its use is very active with recent post volume up sixfold.

2016 Volume of “Lock Her Up” and #LockHerUp |Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

While Trump attempted to quell the chants of “Lock Her Up” during the convention, he embraced the notion that Clinton shouldn’t have been allowed to run for president during the final debate, resulting in a boost on October 19th and inclusion in 14,846 tweets, a fairly modest bump.

But on the day the letter was released, #LockHerUp saw its biggest boom day on Twitter (50,245 tweets) since July 28, the final day of the Democratic National Convention (69,784 tweets). Importantly, the buzz surrounding the hashtag did not fall back to its previous level. It has now plateaued at about 30,000 tweets, a significant increase over the previous average of less than 10,000 per day. Here’s a closer look at the recent trend:

Recent Volume of “Lock Her Up” and #LockHerUp | Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

This puts the Republican poll rebound in context. Republican enthusiasm against Clinton is most crystallized around the email investigation. When it was reopened, the spike in those who believe she should be prosecuted or “locked up” returned to the rallying cry.

Crooked Hillary: The most consistent Trump attack against Clinton has been the Crooked Hillary nickname he gave her at an April 16 rally. A master brander, Trump has kept using it throughout the campaign. The hashtag has now been in more than 5.5 million posts, volume which is increasing in the closing days of the campaign.

2016 Volume of “Crooked Hillary” and #CrookedHillary | Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

But narrowing our view to just the past month, we find that mentions of #CrookedHillary have bounced around, albeit at a high level. The FBI news did provide a spike on October 28 (67,033) but an even larger boom day followed on November 1 (72,873 posts), when no new news about the investigation landed. On November 3, the number of twitter posts with #CrookedHillary dipped to 49,956 but that remains a strong number.

Recent Volume of “Crooked Hillary” and #CrookedHillary | Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

Therefore, we would say that “Lock Her Up” captures more of the moment of the FBI letter to Congress while “Crooked Hillary” is more of the fallback branding Trump supporters have used in the back end of the campaign.

Bottom line: the FBI’s move reenergized anti-Clinton users on Twitter, giving context for the Trump’s rebound in recent polls. But the surge appears to be dropping off, so it may not be enough to close the gap.

Good luck on Tuesday and please remember, no matter who you plan to vote for, write in, or leave blank, make a plan to vote.

If you enjoyed this article, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium. Follow me on Twitter @michaelcohen. You can follow our research on our website or on Twitter @PEORIAProject, which is funded by a generous grant from Mark R. Shenkman. To learn more about the Graduate School of Political Management visit our website or follow us on Twitter @GSPMgwu.



Michael Cohen

Founder of Cohen Research Group. Publisher of Congress in Your Pocket. Lecturer at Johns Hopkins. Author of Modern Political Campaigns