How the US presidential campaign was won and lost – four insights from the people closest to the action

Tony Halmos, Director of the King’s Commission on London and a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, recently attended Harvard University’s Campaign Managers’ Conference, where operatives from both the Trump and Clinton presidential campaigns shared insights from their time working on the election. In this blog, Tony discusses some of the things he learnt at the conference. 

0n 30 November and 1 December, the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government hosted its regular post-US election ‘Campaign Managers’ Conference’ – a two-day review of the presidential campaign by those most closely involved in it. The event itself has been running every four years since 1972, just after each presidential election, but this year’s gained more media coverage than usual, after audio of a short, angry and robust exchange between the Trump and Clinton campaigns was published. But the conference generated light as well as heat, revealing some interesting insights about how the campaign was won and lost. Here are four broad, illuminating points that emerged from the discussions:

  1. It was argued that the Clinton campaign was not as sharp and on the ball as would be expected, given their experience and resources. They just did not see the ‘rust belt’ challenge coming – at least in the full force that emerged. Many thought that her campaign seemed to run on mostly pre-ordained tramlines – what had worked before would work now – and seemed therefore too inflexible and unable to adapt quickly to changed circumstances. That approach nearly lost them the primaries and did lose them the general election. They couldn’t have foreseen how Clinton’s (quite sensible) economic message would be downplayed and thus lost in all the anti-Trump rhetoric. They were also unable to fully turn out the Obama coalition of voters from 2008 and 2012, while focusing on Trump’s flaws as a candidate helped make him the only story most of the time. Needless to say, her team did not acknowledge their candidate’s perceived flaws – but that is too much to ask for at an event of this kind. Unsurprisingly, they heavily blamed the FBI and the publication of hacked emails for the loss – and the media obsession with Trump. There is probably some truth in all of these, and many other factors undoubtedly played a part too, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that Clinton did also win the popular vote – and by a sizeable margin.

    Opening Roundtable

    The opening roundtable discussion at the Harvard conference.

  2. The Trump campaign, with less experience and resources, was thought to be far more flexible and ‘fleet of foot’ than the Clinton campaign. Crucially, contrary to the public impression, they had a very sophisticated polling operation that allowed them to organise where Trump went, at very short notice, with detailed, flexible targeting. For example, as their polls showed a county moving from Obama to Trump in the mid-west, they would schedule at very short notice a Trump visit and/or rally. Likewise, advertising was also cleverly and flexibly targeted. While Clinton was still in and out of Arizona or Nevada in the final few weeks, Trump was targeting swing counties in the mid-west, plus Florida and North Carolina. In short, under the unpleasant froth and noise from Trump, he was running a very clever, targeted campaign, while the Clinton campaign may have been too inflexible and struggling to pick up what was happening (even before FBI Director Comey’s letters). On the media, for all the Trump campaign’s public anger with them, they played its obsession with him brilliantly, and it obviously had a key role in his victory. He had not been the US equivalent of Lord Sugar for 10 years on the ‘The Apprentice’ for nothing.
  3. The media themselves came in for very heavy flak throughout the conference. The focus in the main was on the broadcast media and particularly the news channels (Fox, CNN and MSNBC), as well as the social media companies, especially Facebook and Twitter. There is little doubt that Trump was good for ratings, and that made the media cover him more than they really should have done (the complaint was especially strong from the other Republican primary campaigns and aimed in particular at CNN, who did best out of him in ratings). Trump himself was obsessed with CNN, which he repeatedly attacked, whenever it said something he did not like. This simply fuelled more coverage of his views. In addition, the President of CNN had previously been Trump’s producer at NBC on ‘The Apprentice’, so they knew each other well. One, off-the-record, suggestion was that this relationship drove both sides – CNN’s obsession to cover Trump to excess in the primaries (especially when it delivered new ratings highs) and Trump’s obsession with anything he judged to be a slight from the network, which simply generated even more coverage – obviously picked up elsewhere in the media too. As for his use of Twitter, only 20% of US voters regularly follow Twitter. Obviously the point was not direct followers, but the way the media covered his Twitter activity all the time (and is still doing – though the media organisations are trying to decide what to do about it when he is in the White House). The whole issue of ‘fake news’ on Facebook was discussed in the media session. The attending representative from the social media network admitted it was a new problem to which they are working out their response. Other media activity gained less attention – for instance, the New York Times’ coverage of Clinton’s private email server and Trump’s tax returns, and the Washington Post’s publication of Trump’s audio comments on his relationship with women, as well as the strange finances of his Foundation. But these were also very big stories in the election.

    Nate

    Nate Silver, Editor of the website FiveThirtyEight, at the Harvard Conference

  4. The pollsters and forecasters gained some attention, too, especially in a short session with polling guru Nate Silver. The nationwide polls slightly exaggerated the national Clinton lead: 3.3% in the final poll of polls, as against her actual final lead in the popular vote of 2.1%. They also overestimated the minor parties: Clinton and Trump were predicted to receive 46.2% and 42.9% respectively in the final poll of polls, but in the end, third-party support fell away, leaving Clinton with 48.2% and Trump 46.1% in the popular vote. The polls went really wrong in the key swing states, with too-small samples, omissions of key voters, miscalculation of who will or won’t vote etc. In addition, as Silver pointed out, his final forecast was a 30% (one in three) chance of a Trump win. Not bad, considering how his win happened. Make of all this what you will. As far as polls themselves go, there are lots of technical issues that are not resolved, and they should always be treated with caution and scepticism. The same goes for forecasts based on polls and other information.

This election confounded most of the pundits and prognosticators, and given how seismic the fallout from it may turn out to be, the Harvard conference was an important moment to take stock and document for posterity what exactly happened, from those who made it happen – to capture a ‘first draft of history’, as the conference organisers put it. The course that US politics now takes, and the broader policy implications of the decision that Americans made on 8 November, will undoubtedly be the subject of intense interest from future historians.

Listen to audio recordings of the various sessions from the Campaign Managers’ Conference >

You can contact Tony at tony.halmos@kcl.ac.uk.

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