POLITICS

Politico's Election Pundits Got To Do The 5 Stages Of Grief Over And Over This Year

But didn't we all, really?

It was on a Friday morning ― hours before it would come to light that the GOP presidential nominee had once crudely joked about how the perks of fame include the ability to commit sexual assault ― that their talk turned briefly hopeful.

Mike Pence, they said, was “likable, confident, poised and articulate.” “Calm,” they said. “Truthful and a gentleman,” they said. And he would “mop the floor” with Hillary Clinton, they insisted.

If only the Indiana governor could be at the top of the GOP ticket! They dared to dream of another world ― a better world ― in which their party had nominated literally anyone other than Donald Trump: “Just about any other GOP nominee would have beat Hillary Clinton by an unprecedented number.”

Such were the thoughts of the Republican members of the Politico Caucus, the conservative half of a bipartisan group of Beltway-minded experts and party elites impaneled last year by the D.C. broadsheet to ensure that the paper would have a steady supply of Thought Leader content for the election cycle.

In return, the caucus’ “Insiders” were situated as all-knowing sages of the political scene, and granted a platform from whence they could offer up a combination of hoary conventional wisdom and spicy-hot takes, all while cloaked in semi-anonymity.

This exercise in expert-fetishization might have gone according to plan, had a weird, orange hothead not emerged as the GOP nominee. Because that turned the Republican members of the Politico Caucus into a twitchy, sputtering mess of confusion and contradiction.

They were, after all, the very elites who were supposed to decide the GOP’s nominee by gently guiding voters to make certain sensible choices. This was why Politico had sought them out in the first place.

If they couldn’t make sense of what was happening with their party’s presidential ticket ― if they were really no less confused than the rest of us ― then what was the point... of them?

So the GOP Insiders struggled. In fact, what they did was grieve ― cycling to and fro and back again among Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ famous stages. Anger would give way to hope, only to return to dread anew. Every now and then, a bold prediction would arise, only to be dashed with the next twist of the news cycle. 

But this, after all, was the radical promise at the foundation of Trump’s presidential bid, that these political elites ― their comforts and traditions, their well-worn maxims, their ability to influence events ― would be subverted and defeated by a disaffected mob flying the “Make America Great Again” banner. The worldview shared by the sort of people whom a paper like Politico would assemble into a caucus of experts was always supposed to fail. Their storied perches were always supposed to crumble. And Politico has inadvertently given us all a front-row seat to Trump’s ravages of elite opinion.

Jan. 1, 2016: “Insiders give their top predictions for 2016
Kübler-Ross state: DENIAL

Still flush from what was seen as 2015’s successful run of predictions ― they told you Ben Carson wouldn’t last! ― the GOP Insiders offered their boldest takes on the coming election year. “Trump will not have a victory after the first four states and will exit the race,” said one Republican. Another asserted, “The GOP nomination fight will come down to a slugfest for the soul of the party between two young Cuban-Americans,” referring to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. “Cruz-Haley beats Clinton-Kaine for the presidency,” said another. It was going to be a long year!

Jan. 15, 2016: “Who won the first Ted Cruz-Donald Trump duel?
Kübler-Ross state: DENIAL

A January GOP debate gave the GOP Insiders the first real look at the contours of the emerging battle between Trump and Cruz. Their take? Roughly a draw between the two men, with Cruz ably parrying Trump’s attempt to bring birtherism to Cruz’s history, but also going down in flames for decrying “New York values” after Trump seized the moment to wrap himself in the Sept. 11 banner. Somewhere in the transom, however, the Insiders conjured up a foolish notion that would soon spread itself over the early primaries: Marco Rubio was the real emerging contender. “Rubio beat out Cruz by a nose,” said one, “and they both became the top contenders to try and topple Trump.” Or did they?

Feb. 1, 2016: “GOP Insiders: It was a rough night for Ted Cruz
Kübler-Ross state: DENIAL

Donald Trump skipped the Des Moines debate, but it was actually Cruz who fared the worst. That’s according to the GOP Insiders, who labeled the Texas senator “plastic and insincere,” lambasted him for getting into a fight with moderator Chris Wallace and criticized him for flopping big-time in his attempt to make sense of his shifting position on immigration. The big winner, though? 

One Iowa Republican called Rubio the “strongest and most articulate” candidate participating in the debate. A New Hampshire Republican agreed, saying the Florida senator was “the most articulate of the candidates on a variety of issues and is the most aspirational of the Republicans on stage.”

What could go wrong, apart from the Insiders setting themselves up for a massive disappointment?

Feb. 7, 2016: “Insiders: Marco Rubio crashed and burned
Kübler-Ross state: ANGER

O, cruel fate! Marco Rubio came to the New Hampshire debate with one good line. Unfortunately, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in his one major contribution to American politics in 2016, noticed it and humiliated the Florida senator. The purple praise the GOP Insiders had previously lavished on Rubio turned to ash in an instant. With it died much of their hope that a young, rational Republican might win the nomination.

Per Politico:

New Hampshire GOP insiders called Rubio “cringeworthy,” “badly programmed and robotic,” “so rehearsed he comes off as inauthentic,” and “exposed at last for the wind-up doll he is.”

Feb. 12, 2016: “Insiders: Hard road ahead for Donald Trump
Kübler-Ross state: DENIAL

With Rubio freshly humiliated, Cruz flailing and Jeb Bush marooned on some island of irrelevance, it was starting to seem like Trump’s hammerlock on the nomination was real. But the GOP Insiders weren’t hearing it, insisting that the mogul actually lacked “a clear route to the GOP presidential nomination.” “Trump needs to show that he can grow his share of the vote,” said one anonymous Republican. “Nobody has gone negative on The Donald,” asserted another. 

A third predicted, “He will flame out as people become more serious.” But would “people” indeed “become more serious?” Hmm.

Feb. 14, 2016: “Insiders: Trump flopped in debate
Kübler-Ross state: DENIAL

Oh, now Trump had gone and done it! He’d attacked former President George W. Bush and his handling of the Iraq War! In friggin’ South Carolina! What a huge goof! If there’s one thing that everyone agrees on, it’s that Bush was a mastermind and the Iraq War went perfectly. “Trump’s attack on President George W. Bush was galactic-level stupid in South Carolina,” explained one matter-of-fact Insider. “Jeb’s political testosterone is growing before our eyes,” enthused another.

Yep, it was over for Trump. That much was certain.

Feb. 26, 2016: “Insiders: Donald Trump is the likely GOP nominee
Kübler-Ross state: DEPRESSION

What happened, guys?

The vast majority of Republican insiders... pick Trump as the GOP’s most likely nominee. More than four-in-five Republicans surveyed this week said Trump has the best chance to win the nomination, with only Marco Rubio (17 percent) and John Kasich (2 percent) earning support from other respondents.

If you’re wondering whether there was any self-reflection over the previous confident assertions that disparaging President George W. Bush in South Carolina would definitely sink Trump, you can relax ― there wasn’t any. Instead, a new hope began to blossom.

“It’s still possible for Trump to fall short and, if he does, it will be to Rubio,” an Ohio Republican said.

“He can tread water and hope for a Trump implosion, or in the... rarest of scenarios a brokered convention,” a Florida Republican added. “He just has to stay relevant in the electoral long game.”

Oh, man. A contested convention? How long were the Insiders going to keep that hope alive?

They kept that hope alive for over a month, as it turned out. Then they started getting irate! 

April 15, 2016: “GOP insiders to Trump: Quit whining
Kübler-Ross state: ANGER

So, after a month of baying for party pooh-bahs to step in at the Republican National Convention and hand-alter the trajectory of the primary, the GOP Insiders spent the entirety of the Tax Day column heaping anger on Trump for complaining about how the system was rigged against him. “Stop whining about the rules,” they scolded the Marigold One.

This all came at a time when Trump was briefly facing some electoral headwinds, and the hot talk among the smart set was that he might not end up notching the magic number of delegates to win the nomination outright. 

“For all of Trump’s business success, is it believable that he and his team don’t understand and grasp the nominating process and rules?” asked a Wisconsin Republican. “If not, how is he going to understand the complexities of trade deals, tax reform, budgets, construction of a wall and more should he end up in the Oval Office?”

“This guy can’t figure out publicly known delegate rules,” added a New Hampshire Republican, “but thinks he can go toe to toe with China or Russia?”

Huh, I wonder what those guys think about Trump’s delegate-acquisition abilities now?

May 6, 2016: “Majority of GOP insiders won’t commit to Trump
Kübler-Ross state: Pretending to be ANGER, but largely BARGAINING

A few weeks later, Trump became the presumptive nominee. This proved a bad turn of events for the GOP Insiders, a majority of whom were not “ready to commit to voting for him in November.” Politico broke down that Insider vote and found that 39 percent were planning to vote for Trump, 26 percent were fully in the “never will I ever” camp and 35 percent were still “not sure.” 

So another way of saying it would be that nearly three-quarters of the Insiders were at least open to the idea of voting for Trump.

As one Insider put it:

“First responsibility of the president: Control of nuclear launch codes,” added a Florida Republican. “Had Trump been in office in October 1962, we wouldn’t be here to have this survey.”

That’s not a bad argument for Trump, to be honest.

June 10, 2016: “4-in-10 GOP insiders want to derail Trump at the convention
Kübler-Ross state: BARGAINING

In case you were wondering if Trump might endeavor to “pivot” after his primary win, to reassure the Insiders that he wouldn’t deprive them, via nuclear annihilation, of their ability to anonymously opine ― rest assured, that did not happen. By mid-June, a portion of Insiders who’d once mocked Trump for “whining” about the rules being rigged against him were openly advocating for somebody, anybody, to rig the rules against him.

With just six weeks to go until the GOP convention, more than a third want to see the party throw out those rules, unbind the delegates and allow them to choose a different candidate. For many of them, it isn’t as much about winning this year’s election: Trump as the nominee, they believe, represents an existential threat to the party.

“Trump’s continued descent into madness is dragging the GOP down with him,” said a Florida Republican, who like all respondents, completed the survey anonymously. “A convention switchup would be great politics and save the GOP.”

The most frequently cited reason to blow up Trump’s nomination was the presumably deleterious effect he was certain to have down-ticket. That was also the most frequently cited reason not to blow up Trump’s nomination. As one Virginia Republican said, “Republicans can’t do anything to hurt Trump now without knee-capping our other GOP candidates up and down the ballot.”

June 24, 2016: “GOP Insiders alarmed by Trump’s fundraising
Kübler-Ross state: ANGER

Over the next few weeks, the GOP Insiders raised more grievances about Trump ― and graver concerns about their party’s overall fortunes. The first area of concern: Trump’s unprecedentedly slack post-primary fundraising numbers. The most recent set of financial disclosures were showing that the GOP nominee-to-be had just $1.3 million left in the bank. The Insiders correctly saw Trump’s cash-anemic state as imperiling his ability to be the GOP’s standard-bearer. (Also imperiling that: everything else.)

“He is committing down-ballot murders,” one Insider said. Still, there was some room for optimism:

“Trump still has the capacity to self-fund, and the fact is, he’s worked miracles in getting news media to highlight him,” said a Colorado Republican.

Sure, man. For example, right at this moment, the media was highlighting how bad Trump was at raising money.

July 1, 2016: “Insiders: Clinton dominates Trump on the ground
Kübler-Ross state: DEPRESSION

Not long after the Insiders noticed how bad the Trump campaign was at fundraising, they started to notice how bad it was at nearly everything else. The Democratic Insiders from Politico’s caucus unanimously agreed that Clinton’s “organization and ground game” was stronger than Trump’s. Nearly 92 percent of the GOP Insiders agreed with their Democratic counterparts. All of which raised a question: What on earth was that other 8 percent seeing that nobody else was?

A Colorado Republican added: “By normal campaign ‘standards’ one would point to Hillary as having the stronger organization, but Trump has defied all odds during the GOP primary and did not use typical campaigning or use a ground game as typical campaigns have done. And he won.”

Frankly, that may say more about the quality of Trump’s Republican competition than the skill of the guy who came out on top. Suffice it to say, from fundraising to field organization, the GOP Insiders were finding little in which to take pride. Fortunately, there was a big party convention coming.

July 15, 2016: “GOP Insiders expect convention mayhem
July 18, 2016: “GOP Insiders dreading Trump’s convention
Kübler-Ross state: DEPRESSION

With the Republican National Convention looming, the GOP Insiders found themselves sinking into a funk. Half of the Insiders felt “mayhem” was almost certain to break out in Cleveland ― though many thought the principal agitators would not be hard-line Trump partisans, but Black Lives Matter protesters and other activists determined to foul Trump’s ambitions. “George Soros’ money will pay for thousands of disaffected screaming thugs,” one Insider predicted. So, at least the disaffected thug sector of the workforce was projected to do well.

Others found little to look forward to on the convention stage, with prominent Republican leaders taking a pass on the festivities, and Trump’s inability to project “presidentialness” growing more apparent all the time. Opinions were mixed as to whether Trump should stick to his teleprompter (and risk appearing anesthetized) or be his typical freewheeling self (and court disaster).  

“I am more excited about my oral surgery this fall than I am about this convention,” said one Insider, no doubt dreaming of the pain medication. 

July 22, 2016: “GOP insiders: Trump nailed it
Kübler-Ross state: ACCEPTANCE

But then, wonder of wonders, the convention happened, and the promised anarchy in the streets never materialized. What’s more, Trump’s performance left the Insiders feeling... well, “stoked” is too strong a word, maybe. But nearly stoked.

“Trump gave a simple message and expanded the Republican Party: law and order, economic populism and defeat the rigged system,” said one Iowa Republican — who, like all respondents, completed the survey anonymously.

“I felt Trump gave a very good speech and struck on issues and policies that people wanted to hear about,” added a Colorado Republican. “His family and friends did an excellent job of showing the softer side of Donald Trump and gave America a good view of his family, which says a lot about him as a person. I think he is absolutely right — this is a movement, not a ‘normal’ campaign. People have had enough of tired politicians. I think they are going to give him the chance to run the country.”

If there was something that the Insiders didn’t care for, it was Ted Cruz’s call to “vote your conscience” ― something that Cruz might have felt would go over better with this crowd.

But what’s really important in all of this is that somehow, the GOP Insiders had extracted from Trump’s mix of authoritarianism and pessimism... a reason to be happy? According to one, Trump’s oration “defined the race and made him a voice for the people.”

At last, it seemed as though the Insiders were entering the “acceptance” phase of their grieving.

Aug. 5, 2016: “Insiders to Trump: Drop out
Kübler-Ross state: ANGER

Well, that didn’t last long!

“I’d rather take our chances with nearly anyone else than continue with this certain loser who will likely cost the Senate and much more,” said a New Hampshire Republican — who, like all respondents, completed the survey anonymously.

“The effect Trump is having on down-ballot races has the potential to be devastating in November,” added a Florida Republican. “His negative image among Hispanics, women and independents is something that could be devastating to Republicans. Trump’s divisive rhetoric to the Hispanic community at large has the potential to be devastating for years to come.”

It was at this point that Politico’s GOP Insiders began a series of wild oscillations between hope and despair.

Aug. 12, 2016: “GOP Insiders: Trump can’t win
Kübler-Ross state: DEPRESSION

If I were to sum up the two halves of the Politico Caucus at this point, I’d say the Democratic members were feeling good but not altogether certain that Clinton wouldn’t find some way to blow the election. The GOP Insiders, on the other hand, were inconsolable. By mid-August, half of them were pretty sure there was no path to a Trump victory.

Trump’s previously noted flaws ― his lack of a ground game, his poor fundraising ― were among the reasons the GOP Insiders felt so defeated. What hope remained was fully invested in the possibility that some black swan event might occur:

“Outside events could still intervene, and I could certainly see something happening on the foreign policy front that changes the face of the race, but as Yogi Berra once said, ‘It’s getting late early,’” a Michigan Republican said.

Maybe I’m misreading, but I suspect the phrase “something happening on the foreign policy front” is some kind of euphemism for “a lot of people dying.”

Aug. 19, 2016: “GOP Insiders: Trump’s overhaul won’t succeed
Kübler-Ross state: DEPRESSION

The GOP Insiders didn’t greet Trump’s rejiggering of his listless campaign ― a hot new dance remix featuring Breitbart head Steve Bannon and pollster Kellyanne Conway ― with a great deal of enthusiasm. Nor did they greet it with a great deal of creativity:

Nearly a half-dozen GOP insiders compared the changes to “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” — a reference to Trump’s significant deficit in the polls.

Oh, come on, guys, you’re the Politico Caucus! Surely you can do better than that.

A Virginia Republican made a similar analogy: “You can keep moving people in and out of the car, but so long as the drunk guy is driving it while blindfolded, the ride probably isn’t going to get any smoother.”

Yeah, that’s the stuff.

Aug. 26, 2016: “GOP insiders: Moderating on immigration helps Trump
Kübler-Ross state: BARGAINING

In late August, Trump began to “signal” that he was willing to moderate the policy for which he was best known ― his draconian stance on immigration. Why anyone thought Trump was serious about softening on the issue that had galvanized his campaign in the first place was a mystery. The far more likely explanation ― that Trump was just messing with people ― largely went unremarked upon.

But a few Insiders were willing to bite, all the same. “The plan needs to be realistic,” said one, evidently unfamiliar with Trump’s usual approach to policy. A Colorado Republican told Politico that “Trump’s chances of winning if he veers to the middle go from none to slim.”

Other, cannier Insiders were more wary. “This issue and trade are the two issues that gets Trump crossover votes,” noted one Insider.

Trump did have a plan to cross over ― over the border, that is!

Sept. 2, 2016: “GOP Insiders: Trump’s trip was a hit
Kübler-Ross state: DENIAL

For reasons that remain somewhat fuzzy, Trump traveled to Mexico in late August to face that nation’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. The two men staged a joint press conference at which Trump seemed uncharacteristically generous and subdued, and Peña Nieto looked alternately diminished and perplexed. What emerged from that meeting was a strange “he said/she said” over whether Mexico would foot the bill for Trump’s proposed border wall. In Mexico, Peña Nieto’s standing with the public ended up taking a hit.

Perhaps that’s why only one-third of the GOP Insiders rated the trip as either “mostly unsuccessful” or “disastrous.” The majority of them were able to take some encouragement from it. Between Trump and Peña Nieto, Trump was the only one who didn’t suffer a depletion of esteem as a result of the visit. “Trump finally looked presidential, calm and assured,” said one Insider, apparently happy to find a different way of saying “Trump didn’t transform into a werewolf on live television.”

Which wasn’t to last, by the way. At a subsequent rally in Phoenix, Trump, in the words of one Insider, “went full Viagra... burying the crowd in red meat as he returned to his portrayal of America as a dystopian wasteland ruled by criminal aliens.”

This was the moment when everyone more or less gave up on the notion that Trump might “moderate” his immigration policies.

Sept. 9, 2016: “GOP Insiders: Maybe Trump can win
Kübler-Ross state: ALL OVER THE PLACE

The best way to describe Trump’s next week would be to call it a “mixed bag.” This was actually something of an achievement, since his bag had, up to that point, mostly been filled with molding melon rinds and racism. Trump made gains in some important swing state polls this week. Clinton was entering the low point of her presidential campaign. It was a time of great Democratic Party bed-wetting, which seemed to bolster the GOP Insiders’ confidence.

But a few Insiders managed to remember some of the things that had previously been cited as reasons to despair:

Still, many Republicans still think Clinton’s organizational advantage will prevail.

“Tightening numbers make the ground game even more important,” said a New Hampshire Republican, “and without a Trump ground game ... he can’t win here.”

GOP insiders are mostly downcast about the state of Trump’s organization. Only 17 percent said they have “a lot of confidence” in the Trump campaign infrastructure in their state, while 39 percent have “only some confidence” in the campaign, and 44 percent have “no confidence at all.”

Sept. 16, 2016: “Trump rebound fuels surge in GOP confidence
Kübler-Ross state: BARGAINING

This was the moment when the GOP Insiders, even if they couldn’t exactly embrace their party’s nominee or excuse his many flaws, briefly found solace in an altogether different idea: that Hillary Clinton might just blow the election on her own. Here is where Clinton reached the absolute nadir of her campaign, with the news cycle alternately dumping on her for the “basket of deplorables” comment and stoking paranoia about her health.

“Like the Old Man of the Mountain, Clinton’s support is slowly eroding,” said a New Hampshire Republican — who, like all insiders, completed the survey anonymously. “The health fiasco and ‘deplorables’ nightmare had an impact here to motivate independents I talk to.”

Added an Iowa Republican: “She had the worst week of any presidential candidate in my adult lifetime. Her health and the ‘deplorables’ comment doomed her in this state.”

“I am, for the first time, waffling on this one,” added a Michigan Republican. “More and more of the chattering class here is thinking that Hillary’s health situation is opening up the possibility that Trump could actually pull this off.”

For once, the rattle and clang of the political media seemed to be playing Trump’s tune. Polls were showing a dead heat (that is, an actual one). And the upcoming debate looked like the perfect opportunity for Trump’s momentum to grow, since the expectations for his performance were so low as to be almost nonexistent.

Yep, as long as Trump managed to avoid sharting himself, the race was there for the taking.  

Sept. 30, 2016: “Insiders: Trump had a terrible week.”
Kübler-Ross state: ANGER

Yeah, so, at the debate, Trump sharted himself.

Oct. 4, 2016: “Insiders: Trump will sink Pence in VP debate
Kübler-Ross state: DEPRESSION

It was widely assumed by the GOP Insiders that some of the residue from the aforementioned shart was going to find its way onto Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence.

Oct. 5, 2016: “Insiders: Pence outclassed Trump
Kübler-Ross state: BARGAINING

But just as a drowning man will reach out for any life preserver, Politico’s GOP Insiders found, in Mike Pence’s serviceable debate performance, a reason to believe. Politico summarized it thusly: “Mike Pence didn’t just defeat Tim Kaine in their only debate — he also outshined Donald Trump.”

I probably don’t need to point out that a vice president is supposed to complement the person at the top of the ticket ― not “outshine” that person, or, say, “fill the yawning gap” left by that person’s “manifest terribleness.” But it had been a long year for the Insiders. So much time had passed since those heady fantasies of a Cruz-Haley ticket. The Insiders were gonna run wild in the streets, dreaming of Mike Pence, just for a little bit:

“Not even close,” said an Ohio Republican — who, like all insiders, completed the survey anonymously. “Is there anyone outside of the Trump family who isn’t wishing we could flip the ticket? Mike Pence projects calm reassurance and strength and an ability to articulate a vision and policies Americans support. For the first time in months we heard a serious case for conservative principles.”

“Pence was the anti-Trump,” a Nevada Republican added. “He was prepared, smart, composed and he showed respectful competence and leadership.”

A Virginia Republican called the question “a no-brainer.” Another Virginia Republican said Trump “was a disaster.” A New Hampshire Republican suggested Pence “pinch hit” for Trump in the final two debates with Hillary Clinton.

And that brings us back to where we began, with our Insiders dreaming of a world in which Mike Pence was mopping the floor with Clinton, instead of, you know, the world where Donald Trump is gleefully telling Billy Bush how much fun sexual assault is. It was the lowest point of the campaign, with Republican elites bailing on their party’s nominee in droves and the lurid wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s 2005 remarks competing only with the lurid wall-to-wall coverage of Present-Day Trump’s meltdown.

And somehow, amid all of this, there was a debate scheduled.

Oct. 10, 2016: “GOP Insiders: Trump’s off life support
Kübler-Ross state: DEEP DEEP DENIAL

“I’m shocked, but he won the debate,” said an Iowa Republican who, like all insiders, completed the survey anonymously. “He had her on her heels throughout.”

“Donald Trump did what he had to do,” a Michigan Republican added. “He laid out a Chris Christie, New Hampshire-style indictment of Hillary Clinton in the first 30 minutes when the most eyeballs were watching and before the early deadline for Monday’s newspapers.”

Eh, it’s been such a long year for the GOP Insiders of the Politico Caucus ― let’s just give ‘em this. Fine, yes, Donald Trump was finally taken “off life support.” You know, like you do with things that are brain-dead.

 ~~~~~

Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.  

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

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