Jay Connaughton was a media advisor for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The campaign aired eight of the thirty television spots he produced. Mr. Connaughton co-founded People Who Think, a corporate and political advertising agency.
Harvard Political Review: How did you become a media advisor for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign?
Jay Connaughton: Our firm has been involved in the political arena for well over 20 years now. Over the years, I have partnered with Kellyanne Conway on a number of projects. When she was brought on board to the presidential campaign, we rekindled our relationship. She invited me up to New York to give a presentation.
Kellyanne and I worked together for years. She is a true savant and one of the best researchers in the country, if not the world. We traveled extensively in the 2014 cycle, where we won 8 U.S. Senate races working together. When she got hired, we ran into each other in Cleveland. I congratulated her, and she said, “Congratulations to you, too.” I asked for what. She said, “Well, you’re coming with me.” The rest is history.
HPR: What was it like working for President Trump during the election?
JC: You had a great sense of obligation to do well. Everything that we were doing, as you might expect in a presidential campaign, was extremely intense. Very fast pace. High demand. Lots of deliverables.
Everybody said it must have been so much fun and exciting. There were moments that were, but it was a lot of work. We produced a tremendous number of spots in a short period of time, so you didn’t have time to sit back and enjoy the moment. We were constantly focused on what we were doing next.
HPR: What were you looking to tell the American people about Mr. Trump with your campaign ads?
JC: Our ads focused on that forgotten man and woman out there. We crisscrossed the country shooting testimonial-style ads that featured everyday people and the struggles that they were dealing with in their communities and in their country.
We focused on people who had lost their jobs in heavy manufacturing in North Carolina. We talked to moms in Pennsylvania who were struggling with the high cost of childcare and having to make a decision between following their career or staying home with their kids. We talked with people who were suffering under Obamacare, from a cost perspective of what it was doing to their small businesses or the overall lack of control that they had in their lives because of what Obamacare had done.
If you look at the ads that we produced, it was very much a campaign that we ran through the eyes of others, those who felt like they did not have a voice. Even our ads that were not specifically about people showed a sense of unity and hope.
There was a real difference between what we were doing at the Trump campaign and what Hillary Clinton was doing at hers. We were actually talking about our plan, our solutions, how we were going to make everybody’s lives better. We were giving specific talking points about what we were going to do for an average family sitting around the kitchen table trying to make ends meet. There have been a number of articles written on how the Trump campaign and our media were more positive in nature.
I have worked in other presidential campaigns before, but this is the first one where we definitely were one of the hands on the steering wheel. It was a lot of fun. It’s kind of akin to playing on a Super Bowl team. You hope you can do it again. You hope you can repeat, but you are proud to have been a part of history for that one cycle.
HPR: How do you feel about the media’s portrayal of Mr. Trump, during the election and as president?
JC: The media has a very narrow perspective not just of Mr. Trump but also the entire country, as well as the fact that we actually talked to people who were struggling. We went into the communities where manufacturing was gone. We talked to everyday people, and a lot of people in the press would benefit from getting out there and beginning to understand where the frustrations lie. That is why they not only misread the election but also what the Trump phenomenon is all about. You definitely saw a disconnect, and you still are seeing one today between what everyday people are thinking, and how the election turned out, and what they are portraying as their own media narrative.
It is continuing. What we faced in the election and what we are facing today are very similar trends. People in the press would be served pretty well if they asked—‘what did we miss here? How do we get out of this bubble that we live in?’—and get out there and see why the country made this dramatic shift.
HPR: You wrote in an article for The Daily Caller that President Trump’s victory was not a surprise to you. How were you so sure he would win?
JC: The numbers told us he was going to. We always had a sense of optimism in the fact that Hillary’s numbers could never get above 50 percent. To us, that was a strong indicator that the country wasn’t ready to sign off with Hillary as president. They weren’t ready for her. They didn’t like her. They didn’t trust her.
She wasn’t giving them any reasons to vote for her. Every reason she gave was either ‘I’ve been there’ or ‘he’s a bad guy.’ At the end of the day, that does not give you any comfort as a parent trying to raise kids and struggling to make ends meet. That is not going to motivate you in any way.
At the beginning or end of all of our focus groups—we would go around the table and talk to regular, everyday people—there would be a consensus of ‘I just don’t want to go to Hillary, I just don’t like her, but at the end of the day I also don’t know what a Trump presidency would look like for me.’ Our job on the media side was to answer that question: what a Trump presidency would look like for you.
Where we became even more confident, to the point that we were wondering what we were seeing that other people weren’t, were the early election returns. Several states vote early. A lot of those states release the list of who is voting. The early analyses that we were able to run were clearly showing us that our turnout expectations were looking very good. From this demographic representation of who was turning out and where, it was simple to us where the election was headed and where it ended up on election night.
HPR: In your view, has President Trump fulfilled the promises of the man you portrayed in your ads?
JC: Obviously, it is a massive transition going into the White House and assuming the role of president. He has begun to deliver on a large number of the promises that he made to the American people. As long as he completes what he promises and stays true to why people elected him, he is going to be just fine.
He had a great pick for the Supreme Court. Some of the actions that he has tried to take to curtail illegal immigration and potentially the terrorism that comes along with that, I think people look at that and say, ‘hey, here’s a guy who is just trying to do what he said he was going to do.’ I think people looked at his massive tax cut plan and said, ‘yes, please bring me some relief.’
Once they start making some changes to Obamacare, giving people more control over their healthcare choices, and driving down costs by increasing competition, the American people are going to look back and say, ‘here’s a guy who said what he was going to do and he did it.’
HPR: What would you say to those who do not support President Trump?
JC: He is a man who started with a clear set of deliverables and he is working towards that. That is very unique in American politics, to have someone who is more interested in keeping his word and living up to his promises than playing games in Washington. It is never going to be popular to challenge the establishment. I would just say, ‘sit back and everything is going to be okay. You might have a little bit more money in your pocket at the end of the month and life might be a little bit easier.’
I’d also encourage everyone to look around at the alternative views out there. Try to look at our country, not just Trump’s presidency, from different perspectives. Try to understand why it is that so many people in middle America and the rust belt are frustrated. Try to look at why people are concerned about issues of illegal immigration and terrorism. Open yourself up to a different way of thinking.
We, as a country, have become so polarized, we almost fall into these predestined thought patterns based upon how we consume the news. As much as those on the left ask those of us on the right to see things from their point of view, and to be more open minded, now is one of those many times in American history that we can flip it to the other side and say, ‘hey, lets think about it from our perspective for a moment.’ This message of power and acceptance needs to go both ways.
HPR: What will your role in the Trump administration look like in the future?
JC: We are working with Trump’s external team to help sell his message to the American people. One of the great things about President Trump—that he is able to accomplish now, and he did it in the campaign—is similar to what Ronald Reagan did. He went over the heads of the national media and talked directly to the American people. Our goal on the outside is to make sure that those communication channels are as open as possible for him. We are working with those on the external team to help frame his message and to make sure that what he is talking about and the actualities of what he is proposing make it to the American people unfiltered.
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