Hillary Clinton's former campaign team spent much of last week describing an alternate universe in which she became president of the United States.
That mythology, they insisted, could have been reality if it weren't for FBI Director James Comey — and perhaps some hackers in cahoots with the Russians.
No one in Clinton world made this case more explicitly than the candidate herself. Although Clinton took "absolute personal responsibility" for her November loss in a sit-down with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, she also declared, "If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president."
That's the day before the FBI director notified Congress in writing that they were reopening the email investigation. Democrats were outraged that Comey sent this letter, sensing the implication that perhaps something incriminating had been found, only to reaffirm Clinton shouldn't face criminal charges two days before the election.
"The reason I believe we lost were the intervening events in the last 10 days," Clinton said at the New York City event. She asserted she was "on the way to winning until a combination of Jim Comey's letter on October 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me and got scared off."
Former Clinton aides took to the airwaves all week to press these points and to argue more broadly that the 2016 Democratic nominee was treated unfairly. "Hillary Clinton did not face a fair playing field," onetime Clinton adviser Peter Daou said on Fox News. "That's just a fact."
"[T]here was more scrutiny on James Comey and why he sent that letter than anything else," former Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told CNN. "And I think that we thought we would have withstood it but clearly the analysis that has come forward by Nate Silver and others of the switch and the huge swing in the voting trends between the states that had early voting and throughout the month of October versus those that voted in the final week and on Election Day was a huge difference maker."
FiveThirtyEight's Silver is one of the top political analysts who agrees "Hillary Clinton would probably be president if FBI Director James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28." He added that many "mainstream journalists have been in denial about the impact of Comey's letter."
"At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by 3 or 4 percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona," Silver wrote. "At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so."
Not everyone agrees, however. A major post-election polling autopsy published Thursday by the American Association for Public Opinion Research takes the opposite view. "The evidence for a meaningful effect on the election from the FBI letter is mixed at best," the report states, noting a drop in the polls for the Democrat before the letter was released. "October 28th falls at roughly the midpoint (not the start) of the slide in Clinton's support."
"This analysis … indicates that the Comey letter had an immediate, negative impact for Clinton on the order of 2 percentage points," the report says. "The apparent impact did not last, as support for Clinton tended to tick up in the days just prior to the election."
RealClearPolitics' polling averages also showed the race tightening pre-Comey, with the site's senior elections analyst Sean Trende (who acknowledges the arguments for Comey being determinative) concluding that Clinton "ended up almost exactly where fundamentals said she would."
If anything, this is even truer of WikiLeaks. The most electorally damaging revelations from the leaked emails concerned Democratic National Committee favoritism toward Clinton against Bernie Sanders during the primary campaign, something that marred the opening days of the Democratic National Convention, forced DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz out of her job and threatened to depress liberal and millennial turnout for Clinton in November.
Clinton nevertheless came out of that convention with a comfortable lead. The leaked "Access Hollywood" tape showing Donald Trump making lewd remarks about women was arguably more impactful than anything to come out of WikiLeaks.
When pressed, even team Clinton concedes that the close election turned on multiple factors. "We can recognize on the one hand that we have work to do with middle-class voters and work to correct that," Fallon told CNN. "We can also say that we need to have this full, fair investigation into the Russian intrusion and the sending of the letter by James Comey and have that thoroughly looked at by Congress too. It's not either or."
But even this misses a crucial point: the Comey letter was made possible by Clinton's own conduct, her decision to set up a homebrew email server. That's what put Clinton in the position where the FBI merely discovering that Clinton aide Huma Abedin was forwarding classified emails to husband Anthony Weiner was considered a good outcome.
That server was the basis of "600 days of email coverage" Daou and other Clinton supporters lament. And the emails coverage resonated because the electorate already believed she was untrustworthy, a perception reflected even in exit polls of Democratic primary voters.
The alternate universe in which Clinton becomes president is one without that private email server and a decades-long record that left her vulnerable to one of the least popular major party presidential candidates of all time.