True Believers

Toppling Trump May Hinge on Laughs, Focus Group Shows

Republican pollster Frank Luntz questioned 29 of the billionaire's supporters to try to find the limits of their support for the GOP front-runner.

Does Trump Have His Finger on the Pulse of GOP Voters?

The way to topple Donald Trump might be to turn the bombastic celebrity billionaire into a punchline.

A couple of upbeat, humorous political attack ads had even Trump's most adamant supporters grinning during a Trump focus group on Wednesday night organized by veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz.

In one attack ad, Aretha Franklin's "Respect" played while women held signs with the Republican presidential candidate's offensive comments about women: including about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and rival presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.

In other attack ad shown to the group, The Who's "Who Are You?" played over comments from Trump's past where he expressed support for Democratic policies. And in another ad, upbeat instrumental music played a jumble of Trump moments that have gone viral: including Trump making fun of a reporter with a disability, and mocking rival candidate Ben Carson.

The intended message was clear: Entertaining? Absolutely. Presidential? Hardly. "It was like Trump's greatest hits," said Tiffany, one of the Trump supporters in the group. (Journalists agreed to withhold participants' last names to observe the focus group more freely.)

The style of the attack ads differed sharply from the tactic taken by a super-Pac supporting GOP establishment candidate John Kasich, the Ohio governor. In their spot released in November, Kasich for America essentially likened Trump's rise to that of Adolf Hitler. When Luntz played that ad for the group of 22 Trump supporters and 7 former Trump supporters, the change in the room's mood was striking.

"We’ve all seen these tricks before,” said middle-aged Trump supporter Kara.

“They have tried everything," said Tina, a Baby Boomber Trump supporter, of the political establishment. "They have no idea what to do at this point. “ 

The comments during Luntz's marathon three-hour session were reflective of a common thread that emerged among Trump's most loyal supporters: They don't want the establishment—whether a political party, or the media—pushing anything on them.

Yet upbeat humor seemed a more effective strategy in attacking Trump because it held the prospect of turning undecided voters away from the billionaire without his loyalists complaining that he was being treated unfairly.

The risk for Republicans looking to attack Trump is that his supporters are prepared to support him should he launch a third party run. Many of them told Luntz on Wednesday night they'll do so even if it means losing to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Nineteen of the 29 attendees in the group said they'd back Trump if he launched a third-party run and rival Republican candidate Marco Rubio, the Republican Florida senator, was at the top of the GOP ticket. Thirteen agreed to do the same if Ted Cruz, the Texas Tea Party senator, was the GOP candidate.

"Maybe it’s time to blow [the Republican Party] up,” said Ray, a middle-aged Trump fan who brushed off the candidate's controversial comments.

“Every family has somebody that has an uncle who puts his foot in the his mouth," echoed Tim, a middle-aged Trump supporter. "He's smart enough to know sooner or later that he'll have to dial it down."

Another attack ad that seemed to hit a nerve, however, didn't rely on humor and sought to appeal to working class voters' heartstrings. It portrayed Trump as a heartless businessman, whose only aim was to benefit his corporation's bottom line.

"Trump got his hotels, but I lost everything," one working class employee said in the ad.

The ad struck a nerve with Jeff, who described himself as a working class Trump supporter. He sat in the back of room with his arms folded. "That ad is really good, if it's true," Jeff said.

The group was mostly supportive of Trump's proposal to temporarily ban foreign Muslims from entering the country. They see it as a temporary solution that's needed to better address the broader issue of tracking ISIS terrorists. 

Only three people in the room of 29 indicated that they believed President Obama was a Christian—one fewer than who raised their hands when asked if Obama loved America. "Think of who he was hanging around," said Tina. "Reverend Wright. That crew—that should’ve turned us all off."

They described Obama as "cocky," "elitist," and "un-American." As for Clinton? Only five people in the group didn't raise their hand when Luntz asked if they thought Clinton engaged in criminal activity. “She better not get you for a jury," Luntz quipped.

Their disdain for Clinton and Obama was matched only, it seemed, by their disdain for the mainstream media. When asked to describe the U.S. press, many complained of being portrayed as racist bigots, while other simply used descriptors like "biased" and "elitists." 

"The media always puts us as uneducated. It's just not true," said Michael, a middle-aged Trump supporter. 

During a brief break, Luntz noted to the journalists assembled how every knock on Trump seems to make his supporters that much more loyal to him. 

"You are actually building his campaign with every attack," Luntz told journalists during one break. "You’re actually creating the phenomenon that you are opposing."

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