December 11, 2016
A former senior member of Hillary Clinton’s campaign team attempted Friday afternoon to explain how they managed to lose the election to Donald Trump.
Anson Kaye’s excuses, which were made before a group that included Democrat donors and activists, were plentiful.
WikiLeaks’ release of hacked Democrat emails was, for example, like a “low grade fever,” weighing down the campaign with intrigue and distracting questions, said Kaye, who served as a senior member of the Hillary for America media team.
He also said FBI Director James B. Comey’s two letters to Congress regarding Clinton’s private emails were “really damaging at the end.”
Another lesser-known factor that contributed to the former secretary of state’s eventual defeat: The democratization of news. To put it plainly, Kaye told his audience, there are simply too many voices and not enough gatekeepers.
“It used to be … that the media could help America come to terms with a common set of facts to lead us to consensus and understanding,” he said as he paced back-and-forth at the PowerPoint luncheon event, which was hosted by U.S. News at a high-end bistro in Washington, D.C.
Kaye referenced the press’ coverage in the 1960s of the Civil Rights movement, adding, “If you don’t think segregation is a big deal, having a photo of Bull Connor closing down peaceful marchers in the middle of your newspaper makes it harder to hold that opinion. That is a way to establish a core set of facts around which a national consensus can be born. That helps advance change.”
That’s no longer the case, he said. Times have changed, and legacy media no longer have a monopoly on bullhorns.
“Now, with the democratization of media, anyone can go on the Internet and go to a news site and find news that reinforces whatever view it is that they happen to hold no matter [how crazy it manages to be],” Kaye said. “I call that the ‘Conservative Consensus Bubble.’ It’s a place where facts and norms are kind of turned on their head. It’s where climate change doesn’t exist, for example. That’s a fact if you’re in this kind of bubble on the Internet. It’s a powerful thing.”
Trump took advantage of this “powerful thing,” he continued.
“[Trump] attacking the media was part and parcel of this effort. Yes, it was a way to pre-disqualify negative media coverage of his ideas, but it was also a way to say to his supporters, ‘Yeah. Keep going back to those news sites – those Breitbarts, those WNDs – and you’ll see their reinforcement … of your sense of grievance.”
However, Kaye said, one would be mistaken to say the aforementioned alone led to Clinton’s defeat. Trump’s victory is the culmination of a series of specific events and circumstances, and it would be inaccurate to pin Clinton’s loss on any one thing. To the end of understanding exactly what happened on Nov. 8, Kaye focused much of his presentation on two key election-year issues.
“First,” Kaye said, “we determined … how you say something, your look and your affect and the feel, was as important as what you were saying.”
“And that’s something that’s always in the mix when you’re doing politics and messaging,” Kaye added. “This year, more than any other that I’ve been a part of, how you said something was almost more important than what it was you were saying because there was such a high bar for authenticity in this electorate that you couldn’t get people to listen to what your ideas were unless they first were open to hearing you.”
The other big issue is that voters wanted change.
“This certainly turned out to be a change election, but it wasn’t a hope and change election,” Kaye said, referencing President Obama’s 2008 election, of which he is also an alum. “ wasn’t an election to bring people together and get them to work together. It was ‘I’m going to burn this place down.'”
“Drop Hillary Clinton into that context,” Kaye said. “This is a person who had been in the public eye for decades. People thought they knew Hillary Clinton. They thought her positives were baked in, but her negatives were, too. … The history with Hillary is very real, and that creates a ceiling for someone in my line of work to try to affect the way you’re going to feel about someone if need be. Our ability to talk to you about who Hillary is and who she isn’t was limited by the fact that people felt like they knew her already.”
This created a unique challenge for the Clinton team: How do you convince voters than you’re an agent of change when you’ve been in the public eye for more than three decades? In answering this puzzle, the Clinton team tried to strike a balance between hiding her and putting her in the spotlight.
“This was kind of the anti-spotlight election,” Kaye told his audience Friday afternoon. “We found over time that you’re kind of better off if people are paying attention to the other person and when you’re fighting for a narrow range of people in the middle, that’s a complicating factor. But the reason is: This is such a polarized electorate, that when your person is in the spotlight, it is as likely to reveal the things that people like about them as the things that they have questions about.”
Hillary had “some really terrific ideas – ideas that might have actually worked,” he said quietly. “But it was very difficult for people to hear it because we were someone they’d known for thirty years. And so oftentimes the reaction was, ‘She has been doing this for a long time and she hasn’t made a difference. Why should I believe she can do it now?'”
Toward the end of his PowerPoint presentation, Kaye took a step back from the specifics of the Clinton campaign, and looked at candidate Trump.
“Donald Trump didn’t just happen. He didn’t just wander out and find himself the next President of the United States,” he said.
“I would suggest to you that it’s hard not to see Trump’s victory as the culmination of a decades-long push by conservatives to yank social norms in a backwards direction,” he said, listing same-sex marriage and the Civil Rights movements as two examples of recent socially progressive victories.
As he spoke about conservative reticence to social progress, Kaye’s PowerPoint presentation splashed a picture montage that included radio host Rush Limbaugh, National Review founder William F. Buckley and noted Christian political activist Ralph Reed.
“So much of Trump’s rhetoric … was aimed at making people who are uncomfortable about changing social norms feel good about yanking them backwards. It’s okay to want to ban Muslims. It’s okay to think that immigrants are rapists. It’s okay to think government is unalterably evil,” he said.
As for what’s the best recipe for Democrats going forward, Kaye said he wasn’t sure. The first step, he explained, is identifying the problem. He added that the 2018 elections need to be treated like national elections. Democrats have lost too many seats in Congress, governor’s mansions and too many state legislatures for 2018 to be treated lightly. If Democrats want to act as a “guardrail” against the Trump administration, they’re going to have to think at the local level.
Whether his remarks worked to soothe some of the more visibly distraught members of his audience is unclear. Prior to Kaye’s presentation, one attendee griped about the election outcome, and complained that millions of American voters were not being represented.
“She won. She got more votes,” the supporter told the Washington Examiner. “The electoral college pisses me off.”