If nothing else, Hillary Clinton proved during the 2016 presidential campaign that she’d mastered the art of getting under Donald Trump’s skin. She did it again this week, saying at a conference on Tuesday that, if not for a letter from FBI director James B. Comey, she would have won the election.
Trump responded a few hours later via Twitter.
“FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!” he tweeted. “The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election.”
Then he added something intriguing: “Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?”
This isn’t an argument that’s made often. Generally, the Trump campaign is described in less-than-glowing terms, depicting an effort that succeeded despite itself. But, then, it’s hard to argue with results. There’s only one goal of any political campaign, and that’s to win. On that measure alone, Trump clearly did something right.
To evaluate Trump’s assertion, I spoke with two veterans of political campaigns.
“In any industry, a disruptive actor often looks like they are failing or careening toward disaster. But in reality, they’re just disrupting what is the conventional wisdom,” said Zach Silk, who has managed congressional and state ballot initiative campaigns for Democrats in Washington.
We’ll come back to that. Silk was quick to acknowledge that Trump’s campaign failed by most metrics that have been used to judge political campaigns.
“They failed on almost all the things we would normally judge a campaign on,” he said. “That is nearly universally agreed upon no matter where you sit, whether you’re a journalist, a political professional or just a casual observer.”
Jerri Ann Henry, a Republican strategist who has been involved in cross-state efforts on behalf of same-sex marriage and clean coal, shared that universal agreement. She depicted those elements — the mechanics, in her terminology — as being a section in a pie chart of a successful campaign, sharing space with having an effective message and having the right political moment.
How’d Trump do on mechanics? “In that, they were terrible,” she said. “No, ifs ands or buts.” Which meant, given how small that slice of the pie was, the other two slices — message and moment — had to make up the difference. That, Henry says, Trump did.
“I think there’s a good degree of excellence that came out of the Trump campaign,” Henry said, “of understanding and tapping into a grass-roots audience.”
Silk agreed that it wasn’t just a good message from Trump’s team, but a much savvier sense of how to get that message out.
“They better understood modern communication channels. They better understood the way that targeted communications flows through social media. They better understood how to use controversy and celebrity to dominate news cycles,” Silk said, noting that Trump had been honing this ability for years. “You can name him as one of the most successful political characters of the last decade, partially because of how well he understood how to use those channels to communicate with people — to build audience and to build influence.”
Which gets us back to that disruption.
“The way to evaluate whether they ran a good campaign — it can’t be disentangled from what a disruptive force he is and they were,” Silk said. “My assessment of why you could say they ran a good campaign was that they allowed the space to let that sort of disruption take place and they didn’t let conventional boundaries hold that back.”
That said, there was still an element of Trump’s campaign that was effective at traditional politics. Silk gave credit to the targeted digital advertising run by Brad Parscale from within the campaign — but, more broadly, to the Republican Party’s savvy support role.
“They had a pretty good division of labor on their whole side of the ticket,” Silk said. “They recognized the things that the Trump campaign was going to be good at” — such as his celebrity and ability to dominate the media — “and meanwhile there was a really sophisticated door-to-door operation that was running that looked a lot like what the Clinton campaign was running that was being run” by the Republican National Committee.
“The RNC for the last four years has been putting together a ready-to-go machine,” she said. “When he got the nomination, they deployed.”
She added that Trump was bolstered by another effort, too: well-run Republican campaigns at the state level.
“I think that some of the down-ticket races had an upward pull for Trump. His campaign isn’t the only component to look at in this,” she said. “If you look at [Sen. Ron] Johnson’s race in Wisconsin and [Sen. Rob] Portman in Ohio and some of those Senate races that were masterfully managed. … When they were inundating the airwaves, managing the message — and managing their relationship with Trump — that helped him.”
I asked Henry and Silk to respond to Trump’s assertion about the greatness of his campaign in one sentence.
“They took maximum advantage of the moment. They understood better than their opponent what the electorate was hungry for. They delivered messages through modern communication channels better than the entire Republican field and, ultimately, were successful in winning the presidency,” Silk said. “So, yeah. I think they ran a good campaign.”
“He was different — and with him that worked,” Henry said. “Whether or not you want to call that good and whether or not it’s repeatable for future candidates? Only time can tell.”