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Trump’s unconventional campaign hasn’t convinced campaign managers to change their ways

Hillary Clinton Holds Early Voting Rallies In Iowa
Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager aboard the campaign plane
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There were many losers in the 2016 presidential election — and even more excuses.

“The Comey letter!” Hillary Clinton’s team harped at Harvard University last week at a conference with key figures from the election, reflecting on the campaigns. The “WikiLeaks stolen emails” came as a close second on their why we lost list.

Bernie Sanders’s rise complicated Martin O’Malley’s plans to be the “progressive alternative” to Hillary Clinton, O’Malley’s campaign manager Dave Hamrick said.

“Trump’s rise took away from Christie’s natural strength as a communicator,” Gov. Chris Christie’s strategist Mike DuHaime noted.

“Trump was the entire market,” Jeb Bush’s strategist David Kochel said of the media election coverage. The media suffocated the Republican field’s prospects with wall-to-wall Trump coverage. And John Kasich didn’t drop out soon enough, Ted Cruz’s campaign manager Jeff Roe hinted.

There’s no question that Donald Trump led a winning campaign — a self-proclaimed political revolution — leaving a diverse and competent field of Republicans and Democrats in the dust. But, one month from the election, the lessons learned among said losers seem few and far between.

“Nothing matters”

To be sure, it is only one month from the election. The losers and their campaigns are still licking wounds, and time for self-reflection has been overshadowed by the shock of Trump’s upset presidential win.

There’s despondency. "The theme of the whole primary: Nothing matters," Kochel said.

And sure, Clinton’s campaign is justified, to an extent, in bringing up just how unprecedented it was that Russian intelligence and the FBI director interfered with the election.

But Trump’s rise and path to victory are notable because of their unconventionality. The question remains: Was he just a political revolutionary, or did he fundamentally transform how politicians should campaigns for office? Are we not only post-truth but also post-campaigning?

For two days, almost every campaign manager and strategist from the 2016 election, winners and losers, sat at a table at Harvard dissecting their every move — ground game tactics, message testing, advertising campaigns, digital strategies — talking around this question.

The takeaway: Neither side seems to think Trump had a particularly transformational campaign in terms of how everyone will campaign in the future.

Trump’s unusual candidacy puts a lot of conventional campaigning into question

Trump claimed the presidency running an extraordinarily unconventional campaign.

His ground game was virtually nonexistent in the primaries and trailed far behind Clinton’s in the general. He paid for his own campaign during the primaries, operated with a staff of fewer than a dozen for much of the election cycle, and entered the general election severely behind in fundraising.

His managers and strategists didn’t focus-group messaging or test policy ideas; they vetted ideas through a two- to five-person chain. Their budget on traditional television advertising and mail advertising was laughably small compared with opposing candidates.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — they won. It raises the obvious question: Is there something to this new style of running a presidential campaign? Do all those highly paid political consultants even matter?

Trump’s campaign is quick to tell you about their genius behind it all.

Consider an exchange between Trump’s people and opposing campaigns from the conference, when Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, called ground game operations a “colossal waste of money”:

“I had this conversation many times when I was with my colleagues at CNN, and they told me the number of offices that Hillary Clinton had in Florida — and how Donald Trump had a fraction of that — and they could tell what Mary Smith had for breakfast and what time she was going to eat breakfast and what time she was going to go voting and it was the greatest political operation in the history of the country, and I didn’t fundamentally believe it,” Lewandowski said.

If you have a candidate who inspires, brick-and-mortar campaign offices simply meant “landlords were getting rich”:

“I refuse to do that,” Lewandowski said. “I didn’t find it necessary to have a brick-and-mortar office in every county in Iowa, every county in New Hampshire, every county in South Carolina, or anywhere else to be successful, because we knew that people have this new thing called the cellphone and it works everywhere.”

It was a big moment. A room full of people who had made their careers on strategizing and building ground operations in every county in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were being told their efforts were futile and behind the times — that they were the Kmart to Trump’s Amazon.

Not so fast, Martin O’Malley’s campaign manager David Hamrick — formerly a grassroots organizer for President Barack Obama’s campaign — said. The implications of Lewandowski’s comments were twofold: Yes, Trump was able to win running a get-out-the-vote operation only with cellphones or media appearances, but Trump was also Trump:

HAMRICK: One of things we have to be really careful of is the broad, sweeping conclusions after any election that the next election will be exactly like that.

First of all, I completely agree with the point that a message and a messenger always trumps tactics and organization. But something we learned from the Obama campaign was that every congressional candidate or everyone running as dog catcher in America wanted to run the Obama field program in the years following, but what they found was that they weren’t Barack Obama and they couldn’t mobilize.

Television advertising, field advertising, money, events, whatever they are — they are still going to be important in close races. The question is, what’s the nature of the candidate and what are the tactics that will work on that race.

Heads began nodding.

The lesson learned? Every election isn’t going to be the Donald Trump Show. No change is needed.

Trump’s unusual campaign won, but that doesn’t mean it was right

To be sure, Clinton’s campaign rejects the notion that it ran an out-of-date campaign. Whether voters were contacted via phone call, text message, direct mail, television ad, or online, it was all part of a tested marketing strategy, Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, said.

And they did, after all, win the popular vote. But as election results obviously show, that wasn’t enough to win the election.

So should they have done something differently? Maybe.

Here’s Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital director, debating Teddy Goff, Clinton’s chief digital strategist, on the subject:

PARSCALE: There were significant differences [between the campaigns]. One thing is we spent 50 percent of our money on digital and 50 percent on TV. That’s a groundbreaking thing for a presidential campaign — wouldn’t everyone agree?

Previous that, most people spent 15, 20 percent. We spent $100 million on digital and $100 million on TV. That’s a pretty big change. …

GOFF: …There would have been no justification as far as I can tell for spending half of your money on digital, and I am a digital person.

PARSCALE: I think for us it was budgetary constraints.

GOFF: But there can be no argument — and even Coca-Cola and Nike don’t make the argument — that 50 percent of the media mix should be digital.

PARSCALE: I’m just saying it’s a story.

GOFF: I’m satisfied with the amount of money we spent on digital. I think had we anticipated the Comey event in the final days and what that was going to do to our millennial attrition to third-party voters, we might have leveled up a tiny little bit. But I think we basically not only did the right things but ran the most innovative digital campaign ever. And I speak as the person that was President Obama’s digital director in 2012.

In other words, Parscale’s operation, while successful and unconventional, hasn’t convinced the opposition. They’re saying it’s possible Clinton’s team had a better campaign operation — it looks like they did — and a candidate people still didn’t want to vote for.

There is reason for this response: It was a close election, and in a year that it wasn’t necessarily supposed to be. It’s easy to lose sight of that, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the author of Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, a study of the resurgence of ground game in American politics, told me during the campaign (when things were not looking good for Trump).

“I think there is no question that Donald Trump would be more competitive if they had a better ground game,” Nielsen said.

“A lot of political science work that would try to estimate the likely outcome of this presidential election on the basis of fundamentals — economic fundamentals, and what we know from history on the relative advantage of incumbency versus being a challenger — would actually suggest that this very well could be a Republican year. Compared to that baseline, Mr. Trump is not doing as well.”

Obama was a political messenger with a political operation. Trump was a celebrity messenger — and that was enough.

As much as Trump’s campaign would like to say they had the best campaign operation ever, they are also quick to say they had a special candidate; a “master brander” with incredible intuition. Trump had a finger on the nation’s pulse in a way Clinton did not, his campaign said.

They’re right. Trump knew how to sell his ideas. He knew how to get wall-to-wall media coverage. His tweets reached the New York Times and CNN in a way others’ did not. His rallies were like “rock concerts,” Lewandowski said. Trump had groupies.

He was the celebrity messenger, who, as it turns out, really did not need the brick-and-mortar offices in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Trump was a special case, and as the campaign managers for Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio maintained, their candidates simply could not be Donald Trump — nor could they beat him.

But it doesn’t necessarily make traditional campaign tactics obsolete — or at least that’s what these strategists are telling themselves one month out.