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I Asked Ordinary Voters if They Could Explain Clinton's Complicated Email Scandal

Voters I spoke with in Ohio are convinced that Hillary Clinton is corrupt and guilty of some criminal activity, even if they're not entirely sure exactly what that activity is.

by Michael Tracey
Nov 5 2016, 1:00pm

Hillary Clinton at a 2015 press conference (Photo by Steve Sands/WireImage)

It's hard for anyone to keep track of all the various interrelated scandals and controversies currently engulfing the Hillary Clinton campaign. First and foremost, the former secretary of state is under renewed federal criminal investigation, a fact the country learned on October 28 when FBI director James Comey issued a letter to Congress saying that materials recovered in an unrelated case appeared "pertinent" to the matter of Clinton's unsanctioned private email server. (The unrelated case turned out to be Anthony Weiner's alleged sexting with an underage girl.) Then there's the daily deluge of incendiary WikiLeaks disclosures seized from the hacked email account of her campaign chairman John Podesta; add to that the FBI criminal probe into the Clinton Foundation referenced by the Wall Street Journal on October 30 and you have an ever-expanding blob of impropriety that hardly anyone can seem to get a full handle on. It's just way too much for ordinary voters to process.

To gauge whether these developments are sticking with the electorate, I talked to the good folks of Portsmouth, Ohio. Ohio is a crucial swing state and a must-win for Donald Trump, who has a slight advantage in the polls there. Portsmouth is also clearly Trump territory—it lies just across the Ohio River from Kentucky and is inhabited largely by poorer whites, Trump's prime demographic. Their situation is pretty bleak—ask people what's going on around town and they often reply "heroin," along with not much else.

I met Adrian Gomez, a 24-year-old who drives trucks for Walmart, at the local Buffalo Wild Wings. Most of the guys he works with are firmly supporting Trump—the "truck drivers for Trump" constituency is strong—but Gomez himself says he's a horrible asshole. "I think Trump would just run things into the ground," he told me. Gomez prefers Clinton, but he doesn't like her either—to him, voting for the "lesser evil," as he put it, doesn't seem like a very compelling pro-Clinton argument. He might not vote at all. "After this investigation reopened, it's like, I don't know," he sighed.

Gomez says Obamacare (under which health insurance premiums are set to skyrocket next year) has been a failure, and the country is probably screwed either way. "Honestly, I wish Bernie was in it," he said. (He voted for Bernie Sanders in the Ohio Democratic primary earlier this year.)

I can't tell you how many people under age 30 I've met all over Ohio and Pennsylvania—white, black, male, female, and everything in between—who would've happily and enthusiastically voted for Sanders, but can't bring themselves to vote for Clinton. And even if they can, it's only with the most tepid motivation, borne mainly of a desire to stop Trump. Gomez's friend Jessica, also hanging out at the Buffalo Wild Wings on Thursday night, said she'd "probably" vote for Clinton but hadn't really decided what to do yet. "Doesn't mean I'm a fan of her," she emphasized. As for the reopening of the email server criminal investigation, Jessica had heard about it but also couldn't quite explain exactly what was going on. "Obviously there's something there," she shrugged.

Even if they're only vaguely aware of the details, people do generally know that the investigation into Clinton has resumed and that she appears to have lied about it (which she indeed has.) Cory Smock, 22, attends Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, and like many voters he's absorbed disjointed snippets about the investigation on the internet, but doesn't particularly care about the details because it just reinforces his pre-existing conviction that Clinton is constantly engaged in corruption and criminality. "I just know she's done a lot of illegal stuff," he said. "I don't know. I just hear a lot of shit."

Unsurprisingly, Smock was "a big Bernie supporter," who, like Adrian Gomez, voted for him in the Ohio primary earlier this year. But he won't be voting for Clinton on November 8. "Maybe I'm a bit of a conspiracy theorist," Smock said, "but things are so predetermined at this point. It's all about lies."

"She's the most conceited lying evil person I've ever seen in politics. She wants to go blame Russia for sending emails? She wants to start a war?"

In the current atmosphere of omnipresent misinformation and distrust of institutional media, it's not surprising that conspiracy theories and rumors are flying across southern Ohio. "I think they're about to expose the biggest corruption we've ever seen," said Eric Steele, a diesel mechanic and strong Trump supporter from nearby Chesapeake. "Now they're saying they're about to expose a pedophilia ring. There's so many scandals—you look at Facebook, you don't know what's real and what's not. She's the most conceited lying evil person I've ever seen in politics. She wants to go blame Russia for sending emails? She wants to start a war?"

With such a convoluted tangle of scandal, it's understandable that voters who don't follow this stuff closely would conflate them. Asked for her take on Clinton's latest legal problems, Emily, a pizza store worker in South Point, summed it up this way: "She was in charge of this facility that had people there, and she got 30,000 emails and never ended up reading them, and then everybody at the facility died." That's evidently a conflation of the Benghazi scandal—itself pretty labyrinthine—with the current email saga, congealing to produce a generalized impression that Clinton is just up to no good. Emily's not voting for Trump either, however.

Another young Portsmouth woman, who didn't want to give her name or any kind of identifying details, said she'll begrudgingly vote Democratic even though she also believes that Clinton committed a crime. "She used her email account in a way that was illegal," the woman said, "so I think it is fair for them to reopen it and to investigate."

"My first choice would've been Bernie," she added, forlornly. "I don't like the fact that she's under investigation—this is just a crappy election."

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