Did you hear the one about the candidate and her e-mail account?

Photographer: Kris Connor/Getty Images for EMILY's List

Catch of the Day: Clinton Gets a Pass

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who explains in detail why the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal won't matter to the outcome of the presidential election: 

Few Americans are paying attention to any aspect of the campaign at this point. Those who do notice will most likely divide largely along partisan lines, with Democrats interpreting her actions more charitably, especially once they see Republicans attacking Mrs. Clinton on the issue. 

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from past presidential campaigns, it’s that most supposed game-changers like this quickly fade from the memory of the political class, having never been noticed by most Americans in the first place.

Remember, candidates and campaigns matter a lot in nomination politics, but much less in general elections (so long as both candidacies have similar resources). At that point, party is the most important factor, with the economy and other "fundamentals" such as war and peace having an important but secondary effect. 

How do most voters deal with the avalanche of available information? Not by setting up rational lists of pros and cons (hmmm, I didn’t like the way she handled Benghazi, but I liked how she elevated women’s issues in the world). Most voters will cherry-pick information corresponding to their partisan views, so a Clinton supporter will cling to positive stories and try to ignore the negative ones (vice versa for her detractors).  

If Clinton’s grip on the nomination was looser -- if this was like 2008, when three candidates fought a contested battle up through Iowa and two survived and slugged it out during the rest of the primaries -- then the e-mail story might hurt her chances. If Democratic Party actors were less sold on Clinton, it might be something they would take seriously in their deliberations.

The caveat here is that this is a brand-new Clinton story, meaning we don't know yet if it could lead to even bigger revelations. But this story also could fizzle out as we learn more. It will take something significant to spark a revolt within the party.

So, yes, from what we know now, this isn’t likely to have electoral effects. Nice catch!

  1. So, for example, candidates are more important in House elections because challengers often aren't able to run a full, professional campaign. It’s important for parties to find challengers who can do that. In presidential elections, however, both major-party candidates will have plenty of money and other resources, whoever they are.

  2. Even if people didn't convince themselves that they liked their party's candidate and disliked the opposition contender, the smart move in an era of strong parties and the partisan presidency is to vote for the party's candidate. There would, for example, be differences between Jeb Bush and Scott Walker presidencies, but those differences are tiny compared with what would happen if any Democrat was in the White House. So a non-rational process of cherry-picking information about candidates serves a rational purpose.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net