From one campaign to another, Myers and Plouffe discuss 2016

From left, Joe Bower, chairman of the Summer Institute, asked Beth Myers and David Plouffe to take apart what happened in the 2016 election. —Sophia McCarron

It was a meeting of the minds at the Hebrew Center on Thursday night. Former Romney campaign manager Beth Myers discussed with former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe “How Did it Happen? The 2016 Election” as part of the Summer Institute Speaker Series.

It was a heartening display of unity from two people who could consider themselves opposites on the political spectrum. There were frequent moments throughout the discussion where one paused after the other delivered a point and said, “You know, I agree with that.”

It became instantly clear why pundits such as Ms. Myers and Mr. Plouffe have spent hours with tweezers dissecting the strange alien that was the 2016 election. “It was a black swan event,” said Mr. Plouffe, and there was no one thing that decided the result.

They both presented an unvarnished description of American presidential elections. “It’s a blood sport,” said Ms. Myers. “You have to do everything to prosecute your race. You do everything you can do that’s legal to win.”

Arguably, Hillary Clinton did not do that, and neither did the other Republicans in the primary. “There were 10 ways to Sunday to beat [Donald Trump] in the primaries,” said Ms. Myers. “No one in the primary laid a glove on him. You get to the general, and the same thing happened.”

“It’s not a game,” said Mr. Plouffe. “There is nothing in the world more serious.” Once you’re in the White House, he argued, you set the agenda, and activism only goes so far.

One thing that Mr. Plouffe offered up as a way that Clinton could have improved her campaign was to run on a disciplined economic message. “Bernie [Sanders] had an unapologetically liberal economic message,” said Mr. Plouffe. “Bernie’s supporters would run through the wall for him.”

With such enthusiastic supporters, it seems as though Sanders should have become the Democrats’ nominee. Mr. Plouffe, however, argued that there is one group of voters that any Democratic presidential hopeful must carry in order to make it to the general election, Southern African Americans. “Take it to the bank,” he said. Clinton carried that group, and so she was able to pass go.

Ms. Myers agreed on the need to be disciplined in projecting a consistent message. “Donald Trump said the same thing on election night and when he came down that escalator [when he announced his bid],” she said. “Make America great again.” Although it might seem like an oxymoron to call the Trump campaign disciplined, in a broad theme, he was unwavering. “Never underestimate message discipline,” said Ms. Myers.

As for the future, Mr. Plouffe admitted that Democrats “have a big bench problem.” This could have stemmed from Democrats’ promotion of superdelegates like Clinton.

“Superdelegates keep the field smaller,” said Ms. Myers; she argued that there have to be more people in the Democratic pipeline.

Republicans, according to Ms. Myers, don’t have party leadership that chooses whom to put forward like the Democrats do. “All senators and some governors look in the mirror and see a president,” she said. “It’s a disease.” As could be seen in 2016, with 17 Republicans in the race, this widens the field considerably. They’re unlikely to change that strategy in 2020, Ms. Myers said, because it worked. Democrats, however, may have some rethinking to do.

There is an upheaval going on in politics at the moment, Ms. Myers said. “There is a populism in the U.S. that is a force to be reckoned with that people on Martha’s Vineyard don’t see,” she said. This uncharted territory, combined with voter suppression, fake news, and social media, is deciding how people run campaigns. Twitter, Ms. Myers said, “will impact the elections from now on.”

Ultimately, Mr. Plouffe said, “[Candidates] are still human beings. You just don’t know how they’re going to act when the gun goes off.”