Election Post-Mortem: Where We Got it Wrong and How We Can Move Forward

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andrewr224By Andrew Ricci, Vice President, LEVICK

First, an anecdote that I promise will tie back in later. I was a sophomore in college during the 2004 Presidential elections. That year was my first real foray into politics – I got involved as a freshman at Mount Union College (now the University of Mount Union) and quickly became the leader of the College Democrats. We worked hard in Ohio to support John Kerry, on campus and in the greater community, and I woke up on the morning of November 3rd to a devastating John Kerry loss. I was unsure about the future and worried about what it held.

I would experience this again after the 2010 election, when I was running communications for a Democratic Congressman in a heavily Republican district. Despite running a strong campaign and an aggressive communications program, winning in a year when Republicans won a net total of 63 seats in the House proved all but impossible.

I woke up this morning similarly disheartened, similarly fearful, and similarly unsure of what the future holds. Like many pundits and electoral predictors, including what appears to be many in the Trump organization, I expected a roundly different result last night and this morning. To say the result has been stunning and disheartening to many of us would be the understatement of the century. Much will be written, postulated, and analyzed ad nauseum as the narrative of this Election Day becomes clearer, but in the immediate hours after we have elected the 45th presidency of the United States, I wanted to offer some thoughts on lessons learned and what it means moving forward.

Almost everyone got it wrong, and I suspect one of the reasons why is because we didn’t fully grasp or understand the underlying anger that voters felt at a political system which they felt slighted and ignored by. Many of us saw it as being rooted in an underlying racism, sexism, and xenophobia, among other elements. As a result, many of us who predicted a Clinton victory ignored and condemned it as “deplorable”, rather than really understanding it. To make matters worse, polling didn’t capture the root cause and the media largely failed to cover it. I will never be okay with the rhetoric that was used in this campaign and will always be embarrassed about how it reflects on our nation, but we have to do a better job of understanding the real issues that have motivated these voters. And I sincerely hope that Donald Trump will address the underlying problem in a way that does no harm without exacerbating the painful symptoms.

One of Trump’s core campaign themes was the need to “drain the swamp,” a common refrain and attack on the Washington, DC establishment. Those of us who spend the majority of our time working within or consulting on how to influence this establishment understand what this means, but we failed to fully grasp the sheer disdain for it throughout much of America. I have friends, family, and loved ones back home in Western Pennsylvania who I knew were supporting Mr. Trump, and for the most part, I didn’t engage with them about the election. This, I now see, was a grave error as doing so would have given me a much more informed view of their position and concerns. Moving forward, everyone who wants to comment and consult on campaigns needs to find and interview those with differing political views. They may not come to an agreement, but a better understanding is never a bad thing.

In September, Salena Zito wrote in The Atlantic that “the press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” In retrospect, this may be the most telling and insightful comment made about the campaign. It is the purest embodiment of “truthiness,” a concept Stephen Colbert outlined on the pilot episode of The Colbert Report in 2005. While his facts have been largely suspect and his claims widely debunked, that was never the point. Trump tapped into a feeling and whether the facts were on his side or not, arguing technicalities did nothing to debunk the underlying emotion.

election-post-mortem-where-we-got-it-wrong-and-how-we-can-move-forwardThis was also the first election in modern times in which a determined foreign adversary played a decisive role. This is something we must address moving forward. As our society and our campaign infrastructure become increasingly technological, we have to stay ahead of the curve to protect it rather than simply meet it or, worse, fall behind. While there has been no evidence of hackers tampering with voting systems or databases, the weeks leading up to the election saw a number of warnings about vulnerabilities, and we would be wise to use the coming period between elections to shore up our cyber infrastructure with regard to elections and elsewhere. Additionally, I learned very early in my political career to be exceedingly cautious regarding what I put in emails or sent electronically, and every operative would clearly be wise to remember the lessons learned in this election cycle.

It was interesting to me that after winning the presidency, Donald Trump gave a victory speech that was radically different in tone than virtually all of his campaign rhetoric to date. After months of vicious character attacks, including commitments to investigate, prosecute, and potentially jail his political opponent, he praised Secretary Clinton for her efforts and said that we, as a nation, “owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country.” I sincerely hope that his pledge to be a president for all Americans, even the ones who didn’t support him, was not idle talk, but a commitment to be a pragmatic force for the common good. His campaign gave us much to be concerned with, but I am also cautiously hopeful that he will build a capable team that can address our nation’s issues without catering to base elements of discrimination and hatred.

Trump campaigned on pragmatism and populism, not pure conservatism. If he can govern on pragmatism and populism, cutting deals instead of throwing bombs, there is an opportunity to make progress that both sides can at least be comfortable with. In speeches today by Secretary Clinton and President Obama, they recommitted themselves to the peaceful transition of power that has made our democracy great, and to working together to unify this country. I hope that he will take their offer and work in good faith to repair the divisions that have been exposed. Other Republican candidates, had they been elected, would not have been able to do this, and that is cause for guarded optimism.

In every election, someone has to lose, and losing is never easy. In fact, it is devastating. For those of us with campaigns in our blood, there is no feeling as high as winning and no feeling as low as falling short. And losing when you expect to win is a double punch straight to the core.

On the morning after the 2004 election, despite being as heartbroken and forlorn as so many of us feel today, I wrote an email to my ragtag group of Democratic campaigners that I hoped would serve as a call to action and a reminder that losing doesn’t mean our work had finished. Today, I was reminded of that email, so naturally I revisited it. On that sad morning, I wrote “We may have lost, but we cannot be bitter, resentful, and full of hate for four more years. Now, more than ever, it is important for America to be united. It will be hard for all of us to heal, but we can do it. However, unity does not mean silence or tacit complacency. We must continue to speak out against what we see as wrong. We must continue to take a stand on difficult issues. We must continue to fight for what we believe in as individuals, as a people, and as a party. We must continue to fight to move America forward. In order to do this, we must be willing to work together – Democrats and Republicans – for the common good. Be active, be involved, and most importantly, never give up.”

Those words still ring as true as ever today, and I continue to stand by them. The ball, though, is now in President-elect Trump’s court. Yesterday, when I assumed that a President-elect Clinton was imminent, I had planned to write a piece imploring her detractors to give her a chance. Although the outcome today is not as I had hoped, I would be remiss and hypocritical to not make the same ask of her supporters, until proven otherwise.

About the Author: Andrew Ricci, Vice President at D.C. communications firm LEVICK.  Andrew, an experienced media relations expert, content-creation specialist, and public affairs strategist, started his career working on political campaigns and on Capitol Hill, serving as a senior communications aide to Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio) and as the Congressman’s official spokesman during his reelection campaign. At LEVICK, Andrew now counsels a wide range of clients navigating reputational challenges in the public eye. 

 

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