The groping video. Deplorables. Pneumonia-gate. Tweet storms.
The now-familiar sights and sounds of the 2016 presidential election were on full display Friday at the Dole Institute of Politics in the second day of a conference reviewing the results of the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The verdict, from the Trump perspective: A poor economy and Clinton’s scandals outweighed doubts about his rhetoric and judgment.
“It became our temperament versus her corruption,” said John McLaughlin, a pollster who worked for the Trump campaign.
Most politicians and reporters saw Trump’s tweets and statements as mistakes, said Michael Glassner, a Trump adviser who once served as an aide to former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. But many voters saw the candidate as authentic.
“Trump won,” he said, “because that whole culture of prepared politicians, for every purpose, was rejected by voters.” Mainstream Republicans’ attempts to distance themselves from the candidate only helped that argument, Trump officials said.
Clinton strategists cited a more concrete reason for their candidate’s defeat: the late October letter from FBI Director James Comey. In that message, Comey said the agency was reviewing new emails to determine their relevance to an earlier investigation of Clinton’s private email system.
The Comey letter revived concerns about Clinton’s honesty, panelists said, hurting turnout in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.
“It ultimately cost us the election,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s director of communications. “It wasn’t the only factor, but it was the factor that came at the end that was too much for us to overcome.”
The discussion, on the second day of a two-day post-election conference featuring strategists for the two campaigns, was cordial. But an undercurrent of discomfort between the two camps was still apparent.
“She did win the popular vote by a significant and historic margin,” Palmieri said.
Clinton campaign officials were also critical of some press coverage of the campaign. Reporters’ focus on Trump’s controversial statements distracted some voters, they said.
“He is a master of understanding what makes news, and what makes news directors want to put him in the lead of the story,” said Christina Reynolds, Clinton’s deputy communications director. “We weren’t able to drive a message.”
Alan Cobb, a Kansan who served in the Trump campaign from its beginning, said the Republican’s aggressiveness proved attractive to independents and some moderate Republicans, including some who failed to vote in 2012.
“I think the public likes it when he defends himself in a direct way,” Cobb said.
Cobb also rejected the idea that the Republican National Convention in July was “dark” in contrast to Clinton’s more positive approach at her convention in Philadelphia.
“What’s dark about Scott Baio, by the way?” Cobb asked. “Just being direct and matter-of-fact does not make it dark and dystopian.”
There were some agreements between the camps. Both sides agreed that paid political advertising on television was a nonfactor in the race, making Clinton’s financial advantage less significant.
“We raised a lot of money selling hats,” Glassner said, as the audience laughed.
Clinton’s side admitted her statement about “deplorables” hurt her campaign. Trump officials conceded the “Access Hollywood” groping comments were “unfortunate,” but said the tape became public early enough for their candidate to recover.
The panelists, including journalists who covered the campaign, also remarked on the divisiveness of the campaign and the ongoing polarization in the nation.
Caitlin Huey-Burns, a national political reporter for the website RealClearPolitics, said she was struck by the different atmospheres at the two conventions this summer.
“Traveling from Cleveland to Philadelphia was as if you were traveling from one universe to the other,” she said. “That ended up really being the story of the campaign in the end.”
Alex Burns, a political reporter for The New York Times, said the divisions of the summer are still an important factor in American politics.
“All credit to him (Trump) that he won the election,” Burns said, but “he enters as the most unpopular, distrusted incoming president we’ve had in the history of modern polling.”
McLaughlin said the same would have been true had Clinton won.
“The lesser of two evils was an understatement this time as far as the average voter,” he said.