DNC staff: Arrogance cost Hillary Clinton the election vs. Donald Trump
On Thursday, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, held a conference call with devastated staffers that put the rosiest possible frame on a calamitous picture.
The message to the dozens of mostly young, sleep-deprived and shell-shocked aides: We did everything we could have. We wouldn't have changed a thing. You should still be proud.
Inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which sits half a mile south of the U.S. Capitol, eyes rolled and heads shook in frustration and disbelief.
Clinton's loss at the hands of Donald Trump amounted to the most surprising outcome in the history of modern electoral politics. Of course things could've been done differently. And ignoring that fact wasn't going to make the searing defeat any easier.
"We are pissed at them and state parties are pissed at them because they lost due to arrogance," a top DNC staffer tells U.S. News, sharing the candid sentiment suffusing the high levels of the committee in exchange for anonymity.
It's no surprise that the hierarchy of the Clinton campaign leadership was insular and self-assured. But DNC staffers say the team's presumptuous, know-it-all attitude caused it to ignore early warning signs of electoral trouble inside the states, and demoralized DNC staff who felt largely marginalized or altogether neglected for most of the campaign.
There is always some level of tension between the sprawling bureaucracy of the party committee and the nominee's campaign apparatus. But in the wake of Clinton's loss, when intraparty finger-pointing is inevitable, some DNC staffers describe the relationship between the two entities as uniquely ineffectual, even after the displacement of unpopular chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. And they attribute it to one fundamental reason: Clinton's campaign leaders always thought they knew best. The DNC was to do what it was told: Essentially, be seen and not heard.
On election night, DNC number crunchers' first saw signs of trouble when tallies from Virginia began to roll in. Here was a state the Clinton camp expected to carry by nearly 10 points, and the early returns showed that wasn't going to happen. She won it by 5, but the slimmer-than-expected margin made DNC staffers nervous, especially because they had warned the Clinton camp not to pull staff and resources from there. The campaign did anyway, slashing its advertising investment in August. Sure, they survived inside the commonwealth, but inside the DNC, the late call of Virginia for Clinton was a distressing warning of things to come.
If their projected margin in Virginia was cut in half, where else was their forecast wrong?
Florida was always expected to be a slog. But a shiver went down the DNC's collective spine when a call came in from Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, saying, "We've got a problem."
The Clinton campaign was exceeding President Barack Obama's margins in Democratic counties near Miami. But everything north and west of that showed signs of trouble. Trump's margins outside South Florida shocked Democrats, in that he outperformed 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
"It turns out this was not a turnout problem for Clinton," one Democratic strategist says. "This was a turnout dream for Trump."
Taking deep breaths at the DNC, staffers attempted to calm themselves by noting Clinton didn't have to have Florida, while Trump did. Still, the night was moving in the wrong direction.
The staggering moment top DNC staff knew it was over for Clinton was not due to a presidential call, but a down-ballot contest. It was 11:22 p.m. Eastern time when The Associated Press projected the Wisconsin Senate race, a seat deemed a safe pickup for Democrats for most of the year.
Instead, first-term incumbent Ron Johnson had not only survived, he won with a more than 3-point margin over Democratic challenger Russ Feingold.
"That's the moment we knew it was over," the DNC source says.
Kory Kozloski, executive director of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, had phoned DNC Chief Operating Officer Lindsey Reynolds to assure her, "Don't worry, we'll be your firewall."
But when Feingold fell, Reynolds became exasperated, blurting out an expletive, according to a source.
"Really, f-----? Where's our firewall now?" she said.
Clinton's high command – led by Podesta, campaign manager Robby Mook and director of state campaigns Marlon Marshall – knew it was over before midnight Tuesday, even though Wisconsin wasn't called for Trump by The Associated Press until 2:30 a.m. Eastern time and Clinton wouldn't concede until shortly thereafter.
They released astounded staff from their positions at campaign headquarters in Brooklyn to head over to the Javits Convention Center at 11:55 p.m. In a sense, they were sending them to the mourning site with the rest of Clinton's hard-core supporters.
Back at DNC headquarters, staffers were equally as depressed, but they also became angry, reeling through times they were not valued or downright insulted.
There was the time a state party executive director asked to speak directly to Marshall, and a reply came back from a junior staffer that the state party member wasn't senior enough to merit that level of interaction.
There were the numerous pleas from state party leaders to get Clinton to specific states – like Michigan – earlier, and to devote more resources to state party operations, which provide the oil and expertise to get out the vote.
"But it was all about analytics with them," the DNC source says. "They were too reliant on analytics and not enough on instinct and human intel from the ground."
And there were the multiple factions of power swirling around Clinton: from Huma Abedin, her longtime aide, to Mook and Marshall, whom sources say lost some of Clinton's trust through the grueling primary with Sen. Bernie Sanders, to older Clinton hands like Minyon Moore and Charlie Baker.
Adam Parkhomenko, the DNC's national field director and a co-founder of the Ready for Hillary super PAC, served as a helpful intermediary between these different groups of aides and the DNC. But on many days, even near the end of the campaign, it was difficult to get a read on who held the real power with the candidate.
The Clinton campaign was still scheduled to hold a "thank you" party for staffers in Brooklyn on Friday. DNC staffers were invited, but not many were expected to attend. The DNC communications director and multiple Clinton campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment.
By early next year, there will be an entirely new set of Democratic National Committee leaders with many new staff. Former DNC chairman Howard Dean, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm have emerged as early prospects for the job to succeed Donna Brazile, who is set to step down from her interim role in early 2017.
It's a chance at a fresh start, and ironically, the loss of the presidency will give the entity new life and relevance.
First, the DNC is tasked with mining the reams of data from the states they lost and drawing some difficult conclusions about the best path forward.
In the meantime, Clinton's headquarters in Brooklyn is seeking those answers as well, and will want to see the DNC's data.
But the DNC staffer says his boss has told him, "With the way they treated us, don't feel like you need to respond to anything Brooklyn wants quickly."
Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report