It wasn’t easy being a top advisor to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. Weeks on the road, relentless news cycles and thousands of leaked emails came with the job, said Jim Margolis, the campaign’s media advisor. But that’s not what keeps him up at night.
Post-election, Margolis said he’s still trying to understand the perfect storm that led to Donald Trump’s presidency. “If Hillary Clinton doesn’t pass the test, tell me who passes the test,” he said. “The honest answer is that there were 20 things that would have changed the outcome of this election.”
Margolis said Clinton’s political tenure and policy expertise were not enough to counter the many “hand-grenades” that were thrown into the political arena last year. During an interview with Duke Political Review on Sept. 8, Margolis openly discussed the campaign’s successes, failures, and oversights.
Margolis and his Democratic media firm, GMMB, were responsible for producing over $140 million in political advertising for the Clinton campaign. Margolis also served as Clinton’s personal advisor—preparing her for debates and directing the Democratic National Convention.
But his career in politics traces back much further than this election cycle. Margolis has been a part of almost every Democratic presidential campaign since 1984. Between Barack Obama’s ‘08 and ‘12 campaigns, Margolis managed a billion dollars in media spending. The New York Times has called him an “indispensable” yet “low profile” member of influential political circles.
Despite years in the field, Margolis said the 2016 election blew apart all norms and expectations. “I have never been in a position where I have seen happen what happened in 2016,” he said. “It’s beyond my experience.”
To illustrate how close the race was, Margolis imagined Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium filled with 40,000 Trump supporters from Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If you flipped the crowd’s votes from Trump to Clinton, the country would have a different president, he said.
In retrospect, Margolis said it’s easy to be hyper-critical of his communications strategy.
Margolis pinpointed his advertising strategy to one simple assumption: “RISK vs. CHANGE.” He said the campaign had assumed that voters’ concern about Trump as a “risk” would outweigh their desire for institutional “change.”
“If I had to do it again, I would put more energy into filling out Hillary Clinton for voters, and the positive side of her story would be lifted up,” Margolis said. “With a lot of people, we did not communicate that they were a part of our view of what comes next for America.”
Margolis said that the campaign also felt pressured to adapt their communications strategy to respond to ongoing concerns over Clinton’s use of a private email server.
The campaign’s original intent was to frame Clinton in a positive light through ads focused on her strengths during the final 10 days of the campaign, Margolis said.
But when FBI Director James Comey wrote a letter to Congress about Clinton’s emails only days before the election, shifting public attention to her potential risk, the campaign turned the tables to emphasize Trump as a threat. “When Comey hit, we felt like we could not take our foot off the pedal on the risk that Donald Trump posed,” he said.
Margolis said this strategy did not resonate with voters come election day.
Margolis also took issue with the campaign’s faulty data-analytics and field operations. He said that the campaign failed to turn out demographics that had voted for Obama in 2012—like African-Americans, women, and Millennials.
But not all was within the campaign’s control. Margolis said Clinton faced unprecedented challenges this election cycle from hackers, a hyper-partisan media, and disseminators of fake news. Looking forward, Margolis said he worries foreign and domestic actors will continue to undermine U.S. political institutions through online anonymity.
“There are no refs anymore,” he said. “We have no common sense of the facts.”
Margolis said the ongoing fight between Democrats and Republicans over identity politics was particularly divisive. “I really worry that we get so caught up in identity politics that we fail to hear one another.” However, he also said the country needs to confront its pervasive racisim, sexisim and xenophobia—its yearning for a past that never existed.
“There’s a lot to do here. I’m pretty pessimistic about the capacity to get our arms around it—particularly in ‘18. Maybe we’ll be a little better by ‘20.”
But don’t be fooled by Margolis’ moment of pessimism.
Sitting cross-legged in an office overlooking Duke’s campus, Margolis spoke wistfully about the pervasive sense of hope he felt during Obama’s campaign.
“Obama was magic,” he said. “You felt like America was at a turning point and you were right in the middle of it. And those moments didn’t happen just once, it was Denver accepting the nomination, it was Grant Park on election night…There were 100,000 people, and there was Barack Obama, the first African-American President of the United States of America.”
“It was Philadelphia and the race speech and [David] Axelrod and I were standing offstage and we’re in tears as Obama’s giving this speech and he walks off and says, ‘Hm, must’ve been pretty good.’ That was part of the magic too.”
Like Obama, Clinton never failed to inspire Margolis.
“You’re sitting with Hillary at debate prep and with any topic that comes up—she is driving to understand it,” Margolis said. “She knows more than anybody else in the room, including all the experts. You just are in awe of the experience, and the understanding. And yeah, she’s also really funny.”
“They’re very different people,” Margolis said with a sigh. “But in many respects—the smarts, the caring about people around them, all of those things—they were the same.”
Similarities between Obama and Clinton may have worked against her during the 2016 election. “Actions have reactions,” said Margolis, noting that voters who were disillusioned with Obama’s tenure propelled Trump’s presidency.
“The fact that Hillary didn’t make it when everyone thought that she would, maybe that makes people turn it up a bit,” Margolis said. “This is important. This is a moment we’d better seize.”