Trump and Clinton
Credit: Gage Skidmore and BU Rob13/Wikimedia Commons

Okay, I have nothing but contempt for any effort, as Byron York makes this morning, to build a debate response piece around how Frank Luntz’s “focus group” spun their dials. Let me explain why.

If you watched the commentators who were on television immediately after the debate, you probably noticed that a lot of them thought that Trump did very well in the opening portion of the debate, especially the first segment that dealt with the Supreme Court and abortion. This, by the way, is why you shouldn’t put much stock in cable news talking heads, either.

The thing is, they had a point. Unlike later in the debate when Trump resembled, as former John McCain operative Steve Schmidt remarked, “an old man in the park feeding squirrels, arguing with himself,” he at least knew how to talk about the Supreme Court.

He was coherent, and talking about abortion and the Supreme Court gave him an opportunity to remind skittish conservatives why they might want to go vote for him even if they aren’t giant fans of sexual assault. He was able to play to his base which isn’t without value. That was the cable news take.

Except, the Frank Luntz group didn’t see it that way.

As the voters’ dials told the story, each candidate had strong moments. Clinton’s best point came in the first portion of the debate, on the Supreme Court, when she said she would not seek to reverse Roe v. Wade. The Clinton leaners’ line literally rose off the chart, while the undecided line was very high, and the Trump leaners’ line was high, too. Clinton’s answer scored much better than Trump’s promise to appoint pro-life judges.

It’s easy to forget that overturning Roe v. Wade is an unpopular goal. Even with Trump “leaners” it is a total loser as an issue. I might also mention that Trump’s promise to apply a litmus test and appoint only pro-life judges who would disrespect forty-three years of precedent is not normal. He’s supposed to say something coded like he’ll appoint people who “respect the Constitution.” And Clinton’s impassioned defense of women who face the heartbreak of needing to terminate a late-term pregnancy was articulate, convincing, and courageous. By any measure, she should be judged the winner of this exchange since it electrified her base much more than Trump’s stumbling performance energized his own.

As for the end of the debate, all anyone seems to want to talk about today is Trump’s refusal to say that he will definitely respect the outcome of the election. But Frank Luntz’s group (predictably, in my view) didn’t even really seem to notice:

Unlike in the media room at the debate site, Trump’s will-you-accept-the-results-of-the-election answer was not a bombshell in the focus group. When Trump began to answer, the line representing his leaners actually went up a bit. The line for undecided voters went down a bit, but quickly moved above the neutral line into positive territory. Even the line representing Clinton leaners wasn’t very low, just below the neutral line. No lines plunged. It did not seem as if the moment had really registered.

Why? Because the political and journalistic establishment is much more obsessed with “norms” than the electorate. It seems to me that our whole national experience with candidate Trump has been one long failed experiment in trying to drum this into the Beltway’s collective head.

It’s true that the Luntz focus group agreed with Clinton once she pointed out that Trump’s response was “horrifying,” but they needed prompting to come to that conclusion.

Looking at the focus group and the pundits last night, we could see the limitations of both. The pundits thought Trump did best at the moment when the focus group actually thought Clinton was doing the best. Meanwhile, just looking at how the “undecideds” reacted to Trump’s unpopular views on abortion wouldn’t help you understand how his answer was important to his effort to shore up his base.

Of course, Frank Luntz is careful in who he selects to be his “undecideds” and he basically rigs his focus groups to lean right. You should never pay much attention to their final verdict. But his focus groups do a better job of ascertaining what the public thinks than the pundits’ wild guesses.

The pundit class is still too invested in using their limited analysis screen time to tell the American public what it thinks, rather than what it ought to think.

For example, if you know anything about Iraq and Syria, Trump’s responses on those topics were by far the most alarmingly incoherent and terrifying moments of the debate. Yet, the public at large doesn’t know enough about Mosul and Aleppo to fully understand just how foolish and non-conversant his statements were. It would have been helpful if more time was spent explaining that to them than in trying to convince them that Trump had won the debate on abortion or that he’d committed the greatest sin of all time by not promising to respect the election’s result.

Steve Schmidt got it right when he said watching Trump’s discussion of Mosul was like watching an old man in the park feeding squirrels and arguing with himself. I made the same exact point when Trump was answering that question.

Schmidt actually did the public a service in pointing out that Trump didn’t know what he was talking about and that this is a problem. But he still didn’t explain why it should matter, and he didn’t get any help from his colleagues.

Last night, Trump demonstrated that despite all his advisers and his briefing books and his sit-downs with our intelligence community, he has no idea what is going on in Mosul right now as Iraqi and Kurdish forces with American and Turkish support are trying to liberate that city. And all anyone wants to talk about is how well he did in the debate before he “blew it” by violating cherished Establishment norms on congratulating the winner of the election.

It’s hard to exaggerate how little value our pundit class adds for the public when we have these debates.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at