An Election Post-Mortem

Trump and Clinton campaign managers dissect election strategy, and argue about racism.

Kellyanne Conway and Robby Mook talk campaign strategy at the Kennedy School's Institute of PoliticsPhotograph by Martha Stewart/Harvard Kennedy School

The Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics teemed with bodies far in advance of last night’s much-anticipated post-election panel featuring president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook—the first time the two have appeared together publicly since the election. Harvard has held similar post-election events for decades, but this year was unlike other election years. Thousands of people indicated on Facebook that they would protest this year’s lineup—which originally included Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon, M.B.A. ’85—and call on Harvard not to legitimize the president-elect’s platform. Bannon abruptly canceled his appearance on Tuesday, reportedly due to a scheduling change (he accompanied the president-elect on a campaign-like trip to Indiana and Ohio on Thursday). As reported, a few hundred protesters gathered Wednesday evening, while strategists from both campaigns met at the Harvard Kennedy School. But there were no protesters to be seen at yesterday’s panel, “War Stories: Inside Campaign 2016,” which began on a strikingly cordial note.

Moderator Jake Tapper, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, opened with the obvious question: given her front-runner status, what went wrong in the Clinton campaign’s strategy? Mook attributed her surprise loss almost entirely to the letter, released by FBI director James Comey shortly before the election, indicating that new emails had emerged in the investigation of Secretary of State Clinton’s private email server. (Soon after, Comey revealed that the emails did not change the FBI’s conclusion that criminal charges against Clinton were unwarranted.)  “It is hard to imagine the kind of impact that letter had,” Mook said. “Most of the public polling showed a distinct drop” in Clinton’s numbers. She lost by just 100,000 votes in three swing states, a margin so small that the Comey letter may have made the difference. Conway countered, as she would throughout the evening, that blaming external variables ignores more fundamental problems with Clinton’s candidacy: her unpopularity with voters, or what Conway viewed as her failure to campaign on economic issues.  

Conway, a pollster, spoke with natural ease about polling and campaign strategy. Before joining Trump's campaign, she led a pro-Ted Cruz political action committee, and attacked Trump for his lack of discipline. When it became clear that Cruz was going to lose, Trump gave her a job. Conway’s agreeable demeanor is widely credited with helping him reach apprehensive voters, particularly women. The principal thing that public polls got wrong, she believes, is that they treated a Clinton victory as a foregone conclusion because Trump’s win seemed impossible. It was “a conclusion in search of evidence,” she said, that not only distorted poll numbers, but also enraged voters who felt they were being robbed of agency. She stressed the counties—more than 200 of them—that Trump won that had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The Democratic Party, she said, mistakenly assumed that those voters would vote Democratic again. “I’ve talked very publicly about the ‘undercover Trump voter.’ This was not somebody who’s afraid to say they’re voting for Donald Trump. It’s someone who doesn’t look like a Trump voter,” like a union household that’s long voted Democratic, or a single mother. “We were more open-minded about who the electorate may be.”

From Fake News to Identity Politics

To what extent was the election influenced by facts? Tapper asked. Mook drew out the impact of fake or false news: “Steven Bannon ran Breitbart News, which was notorious for peddling [fake news],” he said. “We all have to work together to restore truth and facts, otherwise we can’t govern.” But Conway had little interest in that discussion. To her, the mainstream press deserved condemnation for failing so completely to predict Trump’s ascendance. “The biggest piece of fake news in this election was that Donald Trump couldn’t win,” she said. Later, when Tapper asked about Trump’s recent assertion that millions of people had voted illegally (“That’s not true,” Tapper said), Conway did not comment on the claim’s veracity. Asked whether she was concerned that, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, the Russian government had been responsible for the Clinton campaign email hacks, she replied, “I just don’t know it to be true.”

Briefly, the panelists touched on a question that has divided Democrats in the wake of the election. What does Clinton’s loss say about the role of identity politics—appeals to voters based on identity groups like race and gender—in a presidential campaign? The Clinton campaign conveyed the message that Democrats “care more about transgender bathrooms” than about whether Americans can feed their families, Conway said. Mook conceded the point: Trump’s campaign did better with struggling, working-class families than he had anticipated. But, he continued, Clinton “ran in defense of the values that I believe made this country great: tolerance, respect for other people, welcoming people from around the world, respecting other religions....The Democratic Party can never give up on those values. I don’t like some people out there saying that the Democratic Party should abandon those values.” 

Already, Conway argued, Democrats appear to be missing the lessons of the election. The outcome represented an indictment of the Democratic Party establishment, and yet the party this week re-elected Nancy Pelosi, “a wealthy San Francisco liberal,” as House minority leader.

The President-elect’s Character and Coalition

Tapper asked few questions about racism or misogyny, the issues that have enraged Trump’s opponents, including so many in the Harvard community. But during the question-and-answer period, student audience members had much to ask about those issues—Trump’s endorsement from the KKK, his promise to ban Muslims from entering the country, his comments about groping and sexually harassing women—which left Conway visibly flustered. Bannon isn’t anti-Semitic, she insisted, nor is Trump a misogynist. At one of the panel’s most heated moments, Rosie Greenberg, an M.P.P. student, mentioned the escalation of hate crimes since the election as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center. What did Trump plan to do to prevent such attacks? “First, they’re an anti-Trump group,” Conway replied. Mook cut in, barely disguising his exasperation: “The Southern Poverty Law Center is an anti-Trump group? They’re a civil rights advocacy organization. They have an incredible track record of standing up for civil rights for people in this country.” 

“There is hate in this country. There are people who say and do outrageous if not hateful criminal things,” Conway admitted—but Trump bears no connection to them. “To presume that a statement [from Trump] is going to be able to do away with behavior that’s existed for decades, frankly, I think is naive and unfair....I think we all need to work together to make sure that we do our best as people to eradicate the hate and to understand each other more. But the questions tonight don’t really sound that way to me.”

Mook again interjected: “As a future constituent of Donald Trump, he has got to speak out more loudly, and more clearly.” But Trump had disavowed racism, Conway protested. “More loudly, more clearly. The Ku Klux Klan endorsed him,” Mook pressed on, to a room of thunderous applause.

The full panel will air on CNN on Sunday, December 4, at 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. Eastern Time.

Read more articles by: Marina N. Bolotnikova

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