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Hillary Clinton’s Email Probe Could Draw Heat for an Unlikely Reason

The FBI’s investigation into the former Secretary of State’s email habits raises some questions about her generally praised competence—an important factor in voter psychology.

By Elena Gooray


Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After more than a year of controversy, the Hillary Clinton email scandal appears to be over. Earlier today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation shared the result of its investigation into Clinton’s use of a personal email system during her tenure as secretary of the Department of State. Their conclusion: There isn’t enough evidence to suggest Clinton committed a crime. Nonetheless, the statement is careful to condemn the Clinton office’s “extremely careless” handling of classified information.

For the Clinton campaign, accusations of carelessness have got to be cause for concern. Media reports and voter feedback on Clinton have consistently focused on two main weak spots: a “likabilityproblem” and a “trust problem.” Rarely, however, is there talk of incompetence. And competence is an important metric: Researchers have found that snap, appearance-based judgments about a candidate’s competence predicted election results at a significantly higher rate than chance, the New Yorker reported. The same did not hold true for judgments of a candidate’s likability or trustworthiness.

In fact, a common narrative around Clinton’s candidacy has been that her “likability problem” distracts from her unimpeachable professional qualifications. Clinton is often perceived as “competent but not warm,” as Business Insiderreported. Just yesterday, President Barack Obama declared her to be the most qualified candidate ever to seek the White House. Even Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell drew heat from Donald Trump last week for calling Clinton “intelligent and capable.”

For the Clinton campaign, accusations of carelessness have got to be cause for concern.

The polls have reflected similar perceptions. When the Democratic presidential race was locked between Clinton and Bernie Sanders back in March, Clinton’s supporters most frequently cited her capability and experience, whereas Sanders’ pointed instead to his “care for and about the people.”

So it’s noteworthy that FBI Director James Comey’s strongest criticisms of Clinton’s email activity suggest sloppiness and lapses in judgment — that the Department of State under Clinton’s leadership played fast and loose with classified information compared to other government departments.

While this review raises questions about Clinton’s performance, they’re very specific questions; they’re no reason to now anoint Clinton with a widespread “competence problem.” But it wouldn’t be shocking for that categorization to pop up in media reports anytime soon: Even amid the narrative lauding Clinton’s experience, she received more negative coverage than any other candidate during the first half of this election cycle, a May analysis revealed.

In fact, Clinton may suffer from a gender double standard in general perceptions of competence: Unlike men, the more competent a woman is perceived to be, the less people like her.