Even elite campaign aides still aren't sure why Donald Trump succeeded

Baffled at times and often bitter, more than two dozen of the country’s top political operatives grappled with questions that have dominated American politics for 18 months: What explains Donald Trump’s astonishing political success and what, if anything, could they have done to stop it?

Campaign managers for Trump’s defeated Republican primary rivals blamed their losses on media coverage they saw as unfair. Aides to Hillary Clinton talked of racism, sexism and what they saw as unprecedented interference in the election by FBI Director James B. Comey.

Trump’s own aides cited a feckless inability of the other Republicans to mount a serious campaign against him until it was too late. 

Nearly all, however, agreed on one point — a factor that could prove crucial to whether Trump succeeds as the nation’s 45th president: his seemingly unbreakable bond with his core supporters, no matter how provocative his words or deeds.

“He was Godzilla walking into the power plant,” said David Kochel, the chief strategist to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s campaign. “He touched the third rail, he touched the fourth rail, he touched the fifth rail … he just got stronger.”

The venue was the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, which, since 1992, has invited top aides from the winning and losing campaigns to spend a day and a half after each presidential election answering questions about what they did and why.

Few of the quadrennial sessions have been so contentious.

Aides to Trump and Clinton clashed angrily on Thursday as the Democrats accused Trump of having used racial prejudice and “dog whistles” to power his victory.

“If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am proud to have lost,” Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, declared after Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, praised his strategist, Stephen K. Bannon.

Bannon previously ran Breitbart News, which has helped give prominence to the so-called alt-right, a movement that pushes racist views.

“I would rather lose than win the way you guys did,” Palmieri said.

“Do you think you could have just had a decent message for white, working-class voters?” Conway shot back. “How about, it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about, they have nothing in common with her? How about, she doesn’t have an economic message?”

Tensions among the Republicans remained only slightly less raw.

Over and over, aides to Trump’s defeated GOP rivals complained of their inability to break through Trump’s domination of media coverage.

From the day Trump announced his candidacy through to the final stage of the primary season, “there were only two weeks that he didn’t get more media impressions than all the other candidates’ paid and free media combined,” said Terry Sullivan, the campaign manager for Sen. Marco Rubio, referring to campaign ads and mentions on news programs.

“We couldn’t keep up.”

Trump aides agreed that his understanding of social media and television and how they could be put to work for him was a key asset.

“If Donald Trump sent out a tweet” in the morning, said his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, “Fox News would cover it: ‘Donald Trump just tweeted from his pajamas.’” 

For that matter, most of the media did. 

The campaign, added deputy campaign manager Michael Glassner, got “billions of dollars in free media” as a result of Trump’s ability to use Twitter to drive the day’s news agenda.

“Mr. Trump would say it was like owning the New York Times with no overhead,” he said.

Lewandowski had his own, unorthodox, complaint about news coverage — that the press had focused too much on Trump’s actual words.

“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” he said.

“The American people didn’t,” he added. “They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

The anger that many Republican campaign aides still feel over the coverage Trump enjoyed boiled into public view during a panel discussion.

Several campaign advisors yelled at CNN President Jeff Zucker as he defended his network’s coverage while adding that from a business standpoint, the campaign had produced “the most profitable year in the history of CNN."

"You showed hour upon hour of unfiltered coverage" of Trump, a top aide to Rubio shouted.

Zucker conceded, as he has before, that “if we could do it over," the network would not have aired as much live coverage of Trump. But, he insisted, "that is not why he was the Republican nominee."

Another reality, Lewandowski said during a brief interview between sessions, was that GOP opponents failed to take Trump seriously until it was too late.

“Give me $150 million, I could beat anybody,” he said, referring to the massive budget for Bush’s campaign and allied super PAC. The inability of Republican competitors to find and effectively use material against Trump that surfaced later during the general election provided a key break for his candidate, but was political “malpractice,” he said.

Indeed, at one crucial point, a rival campaign aided Trump’s rise. After Trump’s loss in the Iowa caucuses, Jeff Roe, campaign manager for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, called Lewandowski to warn him that polls they had done showed Trump’s support dropping in the coming New Hampshire primary because Trump was attacking other candidates too much.

Trump was not doing his own polls, Lewandowski said, so the insight provided key guidance which allowed them to recalibrate strategy.

A loss in New Hampshire might have crippled Trump. Instead, his victory there, followed by triumphs in Nevada and South Carolina, virtually assured him the nomination.

Roe, in an interview, confirmed Lewandowski’s account. At that point in the campaign, “we needed Trump” to defeat other candidates, he said, ruefully.

At the same time, the Democratic primary battle between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was exposing her weakness among a key bloc of voters the Democrats needed — those younger than 30.

It was a shortcoming Clinton never fully overcame.

Pollsters for Trump and Clinton agreed that the Democrat led the general election race coming into the final weeks after the three debates. At that point, both sides’ polls began to show Trump gaining ground as Republicans who had flirted with third parties started returning to their partisan homes.

Trump’s pollster, Tony Fabrizio, said his campaign had targeted voters who said they wanted change in Washington but were suspicious of Trump and were leaning toward Johnson.

In the campaign’s final days, as Trump emphasized his “drain the swamp” message, “we saw that group shrink, shrink, shrink,” Fabrizio said in a joint interview with Clinton’s pollster, Joel Benenson, conducted by pollsters Margie Omero and Kristen Soltis Anderson.

The problem for Clinton, Benenson said, was that a parallel movement among potential Democratic voters stalled after Comey’s announcement that the FBI was examining a new cache of emails that might be related to Clinton’s handling of classified data while she was secretary of State.

Ultimately, the renewed probe yielded nothing for investigators, but it had a critical influence on a small but key slice of voters, said Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook.

“When the director of the FBI sends a letter 10 days before the election,” he said, “that has a suppressive effect,” with particular effect on young voters who were deciding among Clinton and either the Libertarian, Gary Johnson, or Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.

“We needed to be in the low 60s with young people, and at the end of the day, we were in the high 50s,” Mook said. “That’s part of why we lost.”

Trump aides said Clinton’s campaign focused too narrowly on trying to convince voters that he was unqualified for the job.

“They wanted to frame the race as, ‘Do you trust him to have his finger on the button?’” said Fabrizio.

But with the Cold War long over, fear of nuclear war no longer had the influence it once did.

“What a lot of voters didn’t buy was that it was ever going to be a time where you have to worry about his finger on the button,” he said.

Clinton’s senior media advisor and longtime aide Mandy Grunwald disagreed, saying that voter fears that Trump would “blow up the world” came up constantly in focus groups.

But, out of the roughly 135 million ballots cast nationwide, “we lost by 100,000 votes,” she said, overstating the 80,000 vote margin in the three key states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“Everyone has a theory of what might have gotten us another 100,000 votes,” she said. “They all might have.”

David.Lauter@latimes.com

For more on Politics and Policy, follow me @DavidLauter

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UPDATES:

1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from pollsters for both Trump and Clinton.

This article was originally published at 7:50 a.m.

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