The dominant question in Republican politics right now is what, if anything, Donald Trump’s rivals can do to take down the party’s presidential frontrunner. Over the course of the past few months, a variety of GOP candidates have tried, rolling out various lines of attack, to no avail.
What might persuade Trump supporters to change their minds? Is there a magic-bullet message his competitors could use to bring him down? Republican consultant Frank Luntz organized a focus group this week in Northern Virginia featuring 29 voters, each of whom considered themselves current or former Trump backers, for the purpose of identifying the frontrunner’s biggest weaknesses.
The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, who was on hand for the Luntz panel, reported on the unexpected findings.
To Luntz’s amazement, hearing negative information about the candidate made the voters, only a few of whom gave their full names to the press, hug the candidate tighter.“Normally, if I did this for a campaign, I’d have destroyed the candidate by this point,” Luntz told a group of reporters when the session ended. “After three hours of showing that stuff?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Luntz added. “There is no sign of them leaving. He has created or found the magic formula.”
It would appear the focus-group participants were a spirited bunch. Most believed ridiculous conspiracy theories about President Obama; they assumed Trump’s most outlandish lies were true; they endorsed his anti-Muslim plan; and they discounted any information that originated from major news organizations.
Asked about a three-way race pitting Trump, Marco Rubio, and Hillary Clinton, 19 out of 29 said they’d support Trump’s third-party bid. It prompted Luntz to tell reporters, “The Republican establishment just had a heart attack.”
This, however, was probably the most important tidbit from the Post’s article:
At 6:30, when the session began, all 29 participants were asked to rate their likelihood of voting for Trump, and just 10 people said they were at nine or 10. After one hour of mostly negative questions about Trump, six more people joined that confident group.“I’ve been talking about negatives, and you’re up on him!” said an astounded Luntz. “That’s the story of Trump’s poll numbers.”
This is no small detail. In the usual scenario, a consultant will host a focus group, present them attack ads and negative messaging, and then gauge what had the most significant effect. Campaigns will sometimes even do this for their own candidate, so they can address their most pronounced vulnerabilities.
But this week, in this group, the more criticisms they heard about Trump, the more they ended up liking him. Two of the 29 focus-group participants began the discussion saying they’d cooled on the Republican candidate, but after hearing two-and-a-half hours of negative messaging, they said they were leaving more supportive, not less.
One could make the argument that this is just one focus group, not a major national poll, which is obviously true. Maybe these 29 random Trump voters are representative of a larger whole, maybe not. It’s hard to say any with real confidence.
But imagine you’re a Republican consultant or a strategist for one of the 13 other GOP presidential candidates. Imagine you’re looking at the calendar, worried about the polls, and looking for ways to bring Trump down a peg. After reading about the focus group’s reactions to attacks on Trump, what in the world do you do?
The answer, I suspect, is to wait and hope – for Trump to defeat himself, for his supporters to get bored, and for other candidates to drop out.