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Clinton Campaigners Reflect on a Lost Election

11.17.16

Illustration by asmakar/iStock


Illustration by asmakar/iStock

The realization that Hillary Clinton was going to lose hit them at different times.

At a watch party in Bangor, Maine, it hit field organizer Anna Kelsey ’14 as she was watching the precinct returns from Pennsylvania.

In a Pittsburgh hotel, where Michael Kikukawa ’17 had traveled to help get out the vote in the final days of the campaign, people watched the results in what he called “different stages of grief.” 

“People were just saying ‘How?’ a lot,” says Kikukawa, one of the leaders of Harvard Students for Hillary, which had spent the previous months campaigning for Clinton. “I remember being in the hallway and someone started screaming.”

In Manhattan, Valentina Perez ’15, who had worked on the campaign at its headquarters since she graduated, entered the Javits Center as the Florida results were coming in. Despite her nervousness, she remained confident that Clinton would be victorious in the end. But as she watched the screens, placed artistically around a stage shaped like the United States under a glass ceiling, a horrible feeling began building. She began to receive text messages from friends asking her for information. “I was like, ‘I’m looking at the same TV you’re looking at, and thinking and feeling the same things that you are,’” she recalls.

John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman, appeared on the stage and told all of the attendees to go home. Perez entered the subway to return to her apartment, and she heard someone say that Hillary Clinton had called Donald Trump to concede. She began to cry.

For students and alumni who were involved with the Clinton campaign, the memory of the election provokes a range of clashing emotions, from the excitement of the campaign trail and the pride of their teams’ accomplishments to the shock of the devastating loss. These were not the unenthusiastic voters whom the former Secretary of State struggled to mobilize. Rather, her candidacy had drawn them into politics. Now, with the events of November 8 so fresh in their memories, they are still processing the conflicting legacies of the campaign: the promise it offered to young Democratic activists who congregated around Clinton, and its inability to fight off an opponent who represented the opposite of their hopes for change.

 

The potential for conflicting emotions had been evident throughout the election season. At the campaign headquarters, Perez was on the “media monitoring” team, designed to review and track news coverage and distribute it to other staffers. She had started within months of graduating. “When you join a campaign, you’re so passionate about it,” she explains. “You pump yourself up and you believe in your candidate, and you believe that you will win.” But even during the primaries, after Clinton achieved a slim victory in Iowa and Bernie Sanders won overwhelmingly in New Hampshire, she worried about the possibility that her candidate would not end up in the White House.

But there were also pleasant surprises along the way, encouraging the team to think the passion they felt for their candidate was catching on among Americans. On March 15, 2016, Clinton swept all five primary states that voted: Florida, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri. At the campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, Perez remembers, staffers had not expected to win all five. As the primaries were called in Ohio, then Illinois, and then finally Missouri, someone put on music and people began to dance. In the early hour of the morning, Robby Mook, the campaign manager, and Marlon Marshall, the director of states and political engagement, entered the building with brooms, shouting, “We swept!” 

Students and alumni working on the ground in states like Maine and Pennsylvania have similarly happy memories about organizing canvassers and mobilizing voters. They came to believe that the enthusiasm they saw among their growing corps of volunteers would translate into momentum on the national stage. “I think we did an extraordinary job organizing volunteers,” says Simon Thompson ’14, the campaign’s organizing director for Maine, adding, “We’re not used to being a battleground.” The state, with its high proportion of old, rural, white, and working-class voters, had gone to the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1992. This time, its demographics seemed to favor Trump. But in the last week of the election, Democrats organized more than 1500 canvassers to traverse the state—an unusually high number, according to Thompson. 

For Thompson and Kelsey, the Maine field organizer, the results on Election Day were mixed. On the one hand, in the second congressional district Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin defeated Democratic challenger Emily Cain. But Democratic incumbent Chellie Pingree held onto the first congressional district, Democrats won the State House of Representatives, and the GOP’s majority decreased in the State Senate.

But even in Maine, which ended better for Democrats in statewide contests than many other states, the reality of Trump's national victory looms, provoking reflection. “We did everything we set out to do,” says Kelsey. It might not have been enough, she muses, or they might have been working with flawed data—after all, they overestimated the number of Trump supporters who would fail to show up at the polls. “We just had no idea,” she concludes. “And that’s the scariest thing, I think.”

The refrain that “we did everything we could” was repeated in other states, including in New York and in the Pennsylvania hotel where Michael Kikukawa, the Harvard Students for Hillary organizer, was watching the returns after a spate of 15-hour days training canvassers. On campus, the group organized biweekly canvassing trips to New Hampshire along with the Harvard College Democrats, bringing along an estimated 250 student canvassers over the course of the election—including several who had formerly volunteered for Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign during the primaries. 

Now, Kikukawa observes, Democratic-leaning students on campus are largely split into two ill-defined camps. Some have rejected Donald Trump’s victory outright and begun protesting his presidency immediately. Others argue that they should accept him as the legitimate winner of the election while resisting his policies and hateful rhetoric. Within both groups, many are still struggling with the reality of a Trump presidency that they had not considered even a remote possibility. Kikukawa leans toward the second camp, placing it in a similar frame as a canvassing operation: “We need to allow for grieving and feeling sad, but also we need to step back and start to organize.”

But before Valentina Perez stepped back from the election, she returned to the Clinton campaign headquarters at One Pierrepont Plaza in Brooklyn Heights to finish cleaning out the office with her colleagues, many of whom were also recent college graduates now out of a job. “I expected a very different type of job search,” she jokes grimly. In the emptying floors of the tower, she says, there was “no need to pretend to be doing better than you are.”

Outside the building, parents had brought their children to write messages on the sidewalk. As Perez left the Clinton campaign, she walked over chalk that recalled her candidate’s slogans: “Stronger Together” and “Love Trumps Hate.”

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