Election night isn't a party for presidential transition staff

Why presidential transitions have to begin so early
Why presidential transitions have to begin so early

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Story highlights

  • Even for the winners, the night is not necessarily a celebration
  • Past transition leaders describe the mindset

Washington (CNN)Away from the balloon drops of victory and somber concessions of defeat on election night, a small club of political animals will be watching under very different circumstances.

For the few hundred people who have been working for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump's transition efforts, the results of the election either mean the beginning of some of the most intense months of their life -- or the end of a heap of prep work that heads to the shredder.
    They have spent the past several weeks feverishly drafting options for what a Trump or Clinton administration would look like, assembling names for potential appointments, figuring out how to execute policy promises and drawing up an agenda for the first 100 days in office.
    The winners have to keep in mind they're working bright and early the next morning.
    "I remember on election night I could not go to Chicago and watch the victory party because were we to win, I would have to open the transition office next morning," recalled Christopher Lu, President Barack Obama's transition executive director.
    He said he watched the returns from DC.
    "I recall being at a bar up on Capitol Hill and people asked me what I did, and I said I worked for Sen. Obama and I think they all said, 'Why aren't you in Chicago?'" said Lu, now the deputy secretary of Labor.
    "I remember shortly after the race was called at 11 p.m. on election night, I got a phone call from the head of the General Services Administration,... 'We have certified that Barack Obama is the president-elect of the United States and we essentially give you keys to a federal building and access to federal funding,'" Lu said. "While everybody was celebrating, I knew that the next morning I had to get up and open an office at 9 a.m., and so your election night certainly has a different tone than the other people who you're working with."
    That sentiment was echoed by Clay Johnson III, who oversaw the transition of President George W. Bush. Like Lu -- who has known Obama since law school -- Johnson is an old friend of Bush's, going back to their high school days at at Andover.
    Johnson said Bush charged him with planning for a future administration in June 1999 -- 16 months before it would happen. So election night was basically a confirmation of a mindset he had held for months.
    "The campaign people, their work is over, so they are besides themselves with jubilation and just so happy," Johnson said. "Election night, when the person's successful, only confirms the mindset that the transition people have had for the last three, four, five months, that this candidate is the person that's going to be the next president of the United States. That's nice. That's happy. I'm glad for them, but meanwhile, let's get back to work."
    "Maybe they'll have an extra cocktail or two or congratulate their campaign buddies," Johnson continued, "but their time to celebrate is Inauguration Day. ... There's a little deferred gratification for the transition people."

    All that hard work...

    If the 2016 transitions are following the example of their predecessors, there is likely already a rough agenda for a potential President-Elect Clinton or Trump on November 9.
    "At 3 o'clock on the day after the election, we were scheduled to begin decisions on who the president's White House staff should be, who the national security team should be and who the Cabinet members should be," said Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor who chaired Mitt Romney's transition in 2012.
    But Romney lost, and Leavitt experienced the flip side of transition watching: the heartbreak.
    "I had the benefit of getting up everyday for six or so months believing that Mitt Romney would become president of the United States," Leavitt said. "By the time we got to election night, not only did we, but other people, believed he would be re-elected. The next morning, it was remarkable disappointment. It was hard every day for weeks not to think, 'Today is day 17, we would have done X, Y and Z.' We literally had a tick-tock schedule based on what needed to be done."
    Disappointment was also the description from Ryan Cunningham, executive director for John Kerry's transition in 2004, when Kerry lost to Bush.
    "It's extremely disappointing," Cunningham said. "We had done all of the work, we had our notebooks ready to go, the offices were ready for President-elect Kerry, and we were in Boston on election night. We were in the hotel where President-elect Kerry would have gone to make his acceptance speech and we were literally ready to sit down with him and open the notebook to page one and say, 'Mr. President-elect, let's begin.'"
    Cunningham said all the work was then boxed up and the team would four years later support Obama's transition. Leavitt turned his work into a book, "Romney Readiness Project 2012," which offers a road map for transition planning.
    But even though both remember the sadness of election night, neither feels regret for the work they put in along the way.
    "Every four years someone lives the experience I did," Leavitt said. "That's a difficult part of a democracy, but one that we all ought to be grateful for."