A failure to see the obvious

CNN correspondents and commentators experienced the 2016 presidential election in unique and interesting ways. This recollection and others were produced in conjunction with CNN's election project, "A Race Like No Other: The Unprecedented Election of 2016."

(CNN)Michael Steel slipped quietly into CNN's nearly empty, makeshift Manchester, New Hampshire, bureau looking equal parts exhausted and relieved. Pulling off his winter coat on that freezing February morning, the then-bearded veteran GOP operative shook my hand and exhaled for a minute, gathering himself before a television appearance.

Jeb Bush, Steel's boss and the former governor of Florida, had finished fourth in New Hampshire's crucial first-in-the-nation primary. It was, to borrow Jon Huntsman's infamous 2012 phrase, "a ticket to ride" further in the campaign. Steel was frustrated that Bush had been edged out for third place by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. But South Carolina was next up, and Bush was well positioned there, he said.
I nodded knowingly. "Definitely," I replied. "Big night for you guys. Sets you up well for your South Carolina move."
This, of course, couldn't have been more wrong. There would be no "South Carolina move." Bush would be out of the race -- and Steel out of his job as a top adviser -- just 10 days later.
But my error did not come about because Steel was spinning me (though, as a top-notch communications guy, there was most certainly an element of that). Instead, Steel and I were caught in the same vortex, a trap in which we assumed that the absurdity of the previous six months simply had to end at some point. Normalcy would eventually take over. Campaigns with actual strategies, ground operations and a grasp of election fundamentals would eventually take over. Sanity, in other words, would return.
But it wouldn't. And the inability of the Republican Party's smartest operatives (of which Steel is one) and most of the media's smartest reporters (a group to which I don't belong, but to which plenty of my colleagues do) to grasp that fact in real time is something that will forever define the 2016 cycle.
In retrospect, it wasn't much of a secret.
Donald Trump shot to the top of the GOP polls within a few weeks of entering the race. That never changed. Yet we -- party operatives and journalists alike -- kept searching for reasons he would fall instead of accepting the reality staring us in the face. The energy at the New York billionaire's rallies was unmatched. His supporters were unrelenting in their support and, more importantly, in their belief in their candidate. When it came to Jeb Bush, he'd just finished fourth in the state he'd bet his entire campaign on. Fourth! That's terrible! Yet a South Carolina rebound seemed totally plausible to us. It wasn't.
During the primaries, I covered New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (Date of Campaign Death: 2/10/2016, New Hampshire) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (DOCD: 5/4/2016, Indiana), with bits of Bush (DOCD: 2/20/2016, South Carolina), Cruz (DOCD: 5/3/2016, Indiana) and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (DOCD: 3/15/2016, Florida). My producer and I jokingly called ourselves Team Grim Reaper -- whichever campaign we began to cover seemed to face imminent death. But we had a fascinating, up-close and real-time view of some the Republican Party's greatest hopes, smartest players and best advisers. Few, if any, detected their demise before it was too late.
From the outside, it appeared like the movie "Groundhog Day," in which the protagonist lives through the same day again and again. Each campaign and candidate continued to come up with increasingly unlikely pathways to try to beat Trump. But they were unable to remove themselves from the alternate universe they inhabited -- a universe in which primary voters wanted to hear about issues and policies.
One adviser, who shall remain nameless to protect his profanity, put it plainly over beer one night following a GOP debate. He ticked through policy after policy on which Trump had diverged from Republican orthodoxy, quote after quote in which Trump had offended large segments of the population, regardless of party. Then he paused and, in a departure from months of relentless optimism and constant spin, admitted that the writing was finally on the wall for his boss. Staring into his Sam Adams in disbelief, he mumbled: "What the fuck happened?"
There's no question Trump tapped into something profound, and journalists and historians will expound on that for years to come. But from a pure campaign perspective, nothing struck me more than watching the professionals collapse as Trump's campaign -- short on infrastructure, big-money donors, consultants and well, much of anything else that traditional campaigns rely on -- proved both agile and unrelenting in its (extraordinarily unorthodox) pursuit of victory. It wasn't a secret that Trump's tactics were working. It's just that nobody was willing to believe it.