Kellyanne Conway had just finished wowing her audience at a Westin Hotel fundraiser Thursday and was heading to the airport for the quick flight back to New Jersey.
The face of Donald Trump’s surprising campaign had chalked up another success, this time raising around $1 million for the president-elect’s transition effort. And with 160 big-time Republicans demanding all of her few hours in Buffalo, Trump’s top media advisor never got a chance to partake in the fancy-schmancy lunch stemming from a $5,000 ticket.
But when she finally opened her Westin doggie bag somewhere along the Kensington Expressway, Conway still never lost her passion for dissecting the campaign and her White House assignment lying ahead. Trump won, she said, because he found a way to connect with voters on matters they cared about.
And that’s not going to change.
“He will not modify the way he communicates with people, which is directly,” she said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “He’s been doing it through the campaign, because the way he connects and communicates with people is to cut through the noise or the silence on an issue.
“Y’know, there was a myopia at certain times when everybody was focused on the same thing. And it was never clear to us that that’s what America was focused on,” she continued. “And so he shifted the attention back to the issues and ideas that Americans demanded to hear about, and away from whatever rabbit hole many people covering the campaign seemed to be living in.”
Few people can argue with Conway’s success. The veteran pollster and political operative joined a foundering campaign last summer and found herself connecting with voters, too. Many attribute the campaign turnaround to the New Jersey native with deep roots in conservative politics.
“She got her chops busted regularly on CNN but was always so placid in the face of it,” said Professor Denny Wilkins of the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. “Maybe that was it. She was almost unflappable when dealing with a hostile press.”
Conway made it clear on Thursday that the incoming president will continue following his non-traditional path. After all, it worked.
Twitter, considered so unpresidential by the purists, will remain. Take earlier this week, when Trump’s tweets made House Republicans perform a major switcheroo on ethics reform and the Ford Motor Co. backed off on a new plant for Mexico – all within a few hours.
“I was sitting down with Squawk Box on CNBC and they changed the entire coverage,” she noted. “Whatever you planned on talking about, you just changed everything; you changed your graphics, you changed your questions on your piece of paper, what’s on your Teleprompter. Because of his tweet.
“It works to start the conversation and in many places to effectuate action,” she added, “in a relatively short amount of time.”
Message heard here
If Conway has earned a reputation for doing her homework, it manifested itself during her short Buffalo visit. Those attending the luncheon fundraiser said she conveyed a keen understanding of the election’s dynamics, and she told The News that Buffalo and Erie County offer real insight.
“In Erie County, for example, President Obama carried it by 56 to 41 and [in November] it went 51 to 46, so there was a difference of like, 10 points. That ain’t nothing,” she said. “People say he didn’t win the county. He didn’t compete here, but his message resonated. This is a great example of a region where he did not show up here past the primaries, but his message carried on.”
Conway has been talking about the campaign on dozens of national television programs since Nov. 8, but it all seems to underscore her points. Trump talked immigration, trade and terrorism, she said, while Hillary Clinton did not. Voters paid attention.
“The whole conversation about illegal immigration had been ‘what’s fair to the illegal immigrant?’ ” she said. “And he changed it to ‘what’s fair to the American worker? What’s fair to the union guy in Buffalo?' It basically turned on its head what had been a very elitist position, including within the Republican Party, which is: Illegal immigrants are here to do the jobs Americans don’t want to do,” she said. “We heard from a lot of Americans who said ‘I do too want to do that job because I have to do that job.’ ”
She also said Trump won because he recognized a genuine concern about the terrorism that continues to kill Americans. Clinton, she noted, referred to terrorists as “ ‘our determined enemies’ during her convention speech. Like we were playing lacrosse against someone in the seventh grade,” Conway said. “These are not determined enemies, these are savage murderers. He called them radical terrorists. It made a big difference.
“He will double down and get serious about not containing, not dismissing, and not pretending away radical Islamic terrorists,” she added, “but in defeating them.”
Her crucial role
Conway recognizes that voters will expect much of the new president, who has promised to bring back the manufacturing jobs he said were lost to foreign trade pacts. She tells impatient voters to demand action.
“I tell them to call their Democratic senator or Congress people and get them to support non-partisan, good-for-the-country initiatives,” she said.
When he appointed her “counselor to the president,” Trump said Conway played “a crucial role in my victory” and with “amazing insights on how to effectively communicate our message.”
She now faces an even larger challenge at the president’s side, even if she has a little fun first. She turns 50 on Jan. 20 – Inauguration Day.
“I say: What inauguration? There’s a party for me.”