Hillary Clinton

Campaign Turning Points: The Moments That Defined the 2016 General Election

Donald Trump emerged the victor from an often dark and dirty campaign

After a year and a half of campaigning, American voters settled a slugfest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that was anything but normal presidential politics. Accusations flew, election officials prepared for cyberattacks and the electorate was disgusted, but Donald Trump eventually triumphed. 

Previous elections have turned on inspiring moments as well as major gaffes — think Barack Obama's defining speech on race in 2008 or Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" ad in 1984. But this year the election was driven almost exclusively by the drip, drip, drip of scandal, controversy and intrigue.

"Clinton's email scandal, Trump's controversial comments on a number of things. It's been about the candidates to a degree, perhaps, that it's never been," said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics said less than a week before the vote.

It was dark, it was dirty but it finally came to a close as Clinton conceded early Wednesday morning and Trump, the political outisder, became president elect of the United States.

How did we get here? Let's go to the videotape.

July 5: Clinton's Emails Catch Fire
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Clinton was running fairly strong by the summer. She had locked up her party’s nomination and the support of Bernie Sanders, who gave her a tough challenge in the primary but said by the end of June that he would vote for Clinton. Then came the surprise announcement from FBI Director James Comey.

He recommended no charges for Clinton putting State Department emails onto a private email server while she was secretary of state. The decision would have been good news for Clinton if Comey didn't go on to rip how her team handled the emails as recklessly sloppy, vulnerable to hacking.

Clinton should have known better, according to Comey, even if no reasonable prosecutor would charge her for it.

The announcement gave Trump a powerful attack line. Two weeks later, when his poll numbers began to shoot up, the crowd at the Republican National Convention roared with a chant of "lock her up." It became a staple of Trump's rallies across the country.

"It clearly played right into the narrative of Clinton not being honest or trustworthy," Skelley said. "It obviously set the table for it to be a major campaign discussion."

Swing in the polls: +0.1 to Trump after one week, as measured by the change in the Real Clear Politics head-to-head polling average, bringing him to 40.9 percent vs. Clinton's 45.4
Key quote:
"There is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information." –Comey
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July 22: Clinton's First Hacking Problem — the DNC Emails
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Weeks later, the secret-publishing website Wikileaks made it even harder for Clinton to unite her party at the Democratic National Convention. It published a trove of emails from top Democratic officials, appearing to show them backing Clinton over Sanders.

The leak came not only ahead of the Democrats' convention, but as the Republicans were riding high from the close of their own convention. Democratic party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to abruptly step down, and Sanders supporters who felt betrayed caused noticeable discord on the floor of the convention.

It may have been more damaging in the long term. The revelation compounded Clinton's State Department email problem, reinforcing the perception that Clinton — and the Democrats — weren't transparent.

Swing in the polls: +2.6 to Trump after one week, bringing him to 43.3 percent vs. Clinton's 43.3 percent
Key quote: "This really does not come as a shock to me or my supporters. There is no question but the DNC was on Secretary Clinton's side from day one." –Sanders
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July 28: Trump's Gold Star Showdown
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But Trump's troubles weren't far behind Clinton's. Two unlikely stars came out of the final day of the Democratic convention: Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim parents of an American Army captain killed in Iraq.

They stood in front of an increasingly thunderous crowd in Philadelphia, as Khizr Khan attacked Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country (it has since been modified) as un-American, and mocked his lack of sacrifice for the country compared to that of Gold Star families. He capped the speech off by pulling out a copy of the Constitution and offering to lend it to Trump.

The speech was a hit for Democrats and derailed Trump's momentum. He spent the next week defending his Muslim policy as being about "radical Islamic terror" while attacking the Khans. His unwillingness to apologize to the family earned a rebuke from some top Republicans, who wanted him to simply thank them for their sacrifice.

Swing in the polls: +7.7 to Clinton after one week, bringing her to 47.4 vs. Trump's 40.6
Key quote: "Go look at the graves of brave Americans who died defending United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing." –Khizr Khan
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Sept. 9, 11: 'Deplorables,' Pneumonia Trip Up Clinton
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A new problem arose for Clinton when a recording surfaced of her telling a group at an LGBT fundraiser that half of Trump's supporters belonged in a "basket of deplorables," for being racist, sexist, homophobic and more. The remark galvanized Trump, who railed against the insult despite Clinton saying she regretted using the word "half."

Two days later, Clinton was videotaped stumbling as she got into a car at the Sept. 11 memorial in lower Manhattan, yet her campaign hadn't disclosed she was ill. Staffers revealed hours later that she had pneumonia, and it kept Clinton off the campaign trail. "I just didn't think it was going to be that big a deal," she explained the next day.

The pair of gaffes created the impression that Clinton acted one way in public and another in private — feeding into the narrative that she's secretive. "The story became about, 'Well, Clinton's hiding something again,'" Skelley said.

Swing in the polls: +2.2 for Trump after one week, bringing him to 44 vs. Clinton's 44.9
Key quote: "Wow, Hillary Clinton was SO INSULTING to my supporters, millions of amazing, hard-working people. I think it will cost her at the polls!" –@realDonaldTrump
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Sept. 26: Trump's Debate Damage
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The most-hyped moment of any presidential campaign is the first debate, and this year's provided the requisite fireworks — a lot of them. The candidates battled over Trump's unreleased tax returns, Clinton's unreleased emails, the "birther" movement and much more.

But two storylines dominated the coverage afterward: Trump continually interrupting the first woman to lead a major party ticket and Trump having once belittled the 1996 Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, whom Clinton said Trump called "Miss Piggy" when she gained weight.

As with the Khans, Trump spent several days defending himself over the Machado claim rather than apologize or move on. For days, he insisted that Machado's weight gain was a "real problem" for him.

Scientific polls showed Clinton won the debate, and much more damage came from Trump's refusal to back down, keeping a negative story in the news cycle.

Swing in the polls: +0.9 to Clinton after one week, bringing her to 47.8 vs. Trump's 44.6
Key quote: "This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs." –Clinton
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Oct. 8: Trump's "Access Hollywood" Crisis
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Possibly the biggest bombshell of the campaign was the release of a decade-old "Access Hollywood" tape that kept Trump's relationship with women in the spotlight. In it, the then-"Apprentice" host is heard bragging with Billy Bush about being able to do anything he wants to women, including grabbing them by the private parts, because he's famous. 

Trump apologized twice for what many Democrats called an admission of sexual assault, but the remarks nevertheless brought denunciations from top Republicans, including Trump's vice presidential nominee. A few even said they could no longer support him.

His cavalier attitude about sexual conquests was damning in its own right, but Skelley said it fed into the pre-existing narrative about Trump that the Machado news had already set up: "There's plenty of evidence that he has been a misogynist at times and has made plenty of sexist comments."

Within a few weeks, 11 women came forward to accuse Trump of past sexual misconduct, including sexual assault and unwanted kissing and groping. He has denied all the allegations, which have not been verified by NBC News.

Bush, for his part, was suspended at his new job on NBC's "Today" then left the show. ("Access Hollywood" is owned and distributed by NBCUniversal, the parent company of this station.)

Swing in the polls: +2.1 to Clinton after one week, bringing her to 48.1 vs. Trump's 41.4
Key quote: "Anyone that knows me knows these words don't reflect who I am. I said it, I was wrong and I apologize." –Trump
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Oct. 13: First Lady Joins the Fray
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As women were still coming forward with accusations against Trump, Michelle Obama summed up the scandal in a speech at a New Hampshire university.

"Enough is enough, this has got to stop right now," she said.

Arguing that even little boys know that men shouldn't take advantage of women, Obama said the country needs a leader who can unite the country, and that Clinton was the person to do it.

She spoke directly to one of Clinton's key constituencys: "Women's votes were the difference between Barack winning and losing in key swing states, including right here in New Hampshire," she said, urging them to make the difference in 2016 once again. Even if it didn't swing the polls more than they already had, Obama made the campaign's strongest and most passionate argument against electing a man who has admitted sexual misconduct.

And the speech was a political coming out party for the first lady as well. Her only other campaign appearance to that point was a similarly acclaimed speech at the Democrats' convention, but she became a powerful surrogate in the final stretch.

Swing in the polls: +0.3 to Trump, bringing him to 42.1 vs. Clinton's 48.5 (just down from her 2016 high) 
Key quote: "I can't believe that I'm saying that a candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women. And I have to tell you that I can't stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn't have predicted." -Michelle Obama
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Oct. 28: Clinton's 2nd Email Surprise
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Clinton's lead started to look insurmountable to many in the media, as Trump began insisting that he was trailing because the race was being rigged by the media and political class. Then Comey sent a short letter to a congressional oversight committee saying the FBI had discovered new emails related to the investigation into Clinton's email server.

Worse, the emails were discovered on the computer of disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, estranged husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. The FBI is investigating him for allegedly sexting with a minor — linking Clinton's scandal to his, despite any evidence from the FBI that classified information was stored on Weiner's server.

The announcement came despite a Department of Justice rule against such actions coming soon before elections, so it doesn't look like the government is meddling in them. Democrats and even some Republicans certainly saw the move that way, while Trump started telling crowds the system might not be so rigged against him after all.

"The race was already tightening a bit, probably because Republicans were coming home, but now [it looks like] Trump's pulling within 2 points," Skelley said late last week. He added that such a close race mirrored "what a lot of the fundamental models" analyzing the race initially showed.

When the Comey letter dropped, Clinton's campaign had just indicated it was making a play for the reliably Republican state of Arizona, a way to run up the score on Election Day. Afterward, her victory no longer assured, she and her surrogates added last-minute stops to states she once thought were reliably blue, like Michigan and Wisconsin.

The FBI review of the emails ended nine days later, just as suddenly as it began. In a second letter sent the Sunday before the election, Comey informed lawmakers the review was over and had not changed his original determination. Clinton didn't mention the saga at a rally in Cleveland later that day, as she made a play for Trump-leaning Ohio by appearing on stage with hometown hero LeBron James.

Swing in the polls: +4 to Trump within one week, bringing him to 44.8 vs. Clinton's 46.4 
Key quote: "In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation. I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me on this yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation." –Comey's letter
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