I hope you enjoyed the piece I did Friday on the curious nature of the Donald Trump campaign, and how it was sufficiently different from campaigns in history as to be called "disruptive."
I had some interesting email exchanges with readers following that piece. More interesting is that one such exchange got me thinking about yet another way that an aspect of his candidacy turned out to be disruptive. This one, however, was not to his favor, as last night's Iowa caucuses bore out.
Frank Luntz is a political consultant, whose stock in trade is the use of focus groups on the Fox News channel. As presented, the focus groups are intended to be a relative cross-section of surveyable individuals, to whom he shows clips, or whom he has watch an event like a debate, and then polls them to see their reaction.
Immediately after the debate Thursday night, Luntz had a focus group of Republican voters in Iowa and, having already determined their response to the debate, was able right after its conclusion to present a startling response. "How many of you", he asked of the 35 or so in the focus group, "were Marco Rubio supporters before tonight?" Perhaps three raised their hands.
"How many of you", he then asked, "are supporting Rubio now?" The number zoomed to perhaps 14-15 of those in the group. "That", he added to the TV audience, "is the power of a debate."
OK. So if you saw the same debate that I did, and I trust you did, you would have seen Marco Rubio do an excellent job. You saw him, though, do the same excellent job he had done in all the previous debates. Am I not right? He was thoughtful, forceful, to the point, spectacular at times, and in command of the facts and the issues.
But he has always been in command of the facts and the issues, and done so forcefully and with a very compelling presentation. So the question is not why a dozen people in that focus group became Rubio supporters after the debate but, rather, why they had not been so after they had seen the other debates?
And that's the thing. In my view, although they were in their chairs for the other debates, and the debates were on their televisions, they had not actually "seen" them. What they had seen, and what had left an impact, was the disruptive nature of the presence of Donald Trump in those other debates. So much of the questioning before Thursday was about what Trump had said or done, that it sucked some of the air out of the room for discussion of actual issues.
Rubio had spoken to actual issues repeatedly and excellently in those other debates, but his excellence was obliterated, for many, by the exchanges involving, led by, or about Trump. So the audiences frankly had not "seen" a few particularly outstanding performances -- Rubio certainly, but also Chris Christie and often Carly Fiorina -- and, for that matter, Mike Huckabee.
I believe that. I believe that one of those previously unperceived impacts of the presence of Donald Trump in the campaign, is that we have not come to appreciate some real strength shown by some candidates in the debates. They have been obscured by the less-relevant -- even when Trump is speaking about a critical issue, it seems less about the issue and more about Trump's take on the issue, because it is, well, Trump's take.
If you believe that, and I think you should, then it was a horrendous mistake for Trump to have skipped the debate Thursday. The more he is visible, the more he holds on to his support. But you look at those dozen who switched over to Rubio -- and there were others in the focus group beyond those dozen, who said really positive things about him -- and they came from somewhere, whether undecided, or another candidate, or from Donald Trump.
Trump may think that Ted Cruz is his biggest adversary, and the Texas senator certainly is a potent force, again, as last night's caucuses showed. He is a seasoned and polished debater who often is the smartest guy in the room. But Marco Rubio, more than (or as much as) any of the other candidates, has the capacity to soar in the polls and grab up big chunks of voters quickly. He is young and attractive, an amazing extemporaneous speaker and has no particular negatives.
Donald Trump may have thought he was standing on some kind of principle in skipping the debate, but it was a principle that meant something only to him. "Senator Cruz", he may have thought, "won't gain on me if I'm not there -- the others will jump on him instead of me." But in this year of disruptive campaigns, Trump has disrupted his own, by not thinking through to who his opportunistic rival really was.
He was worried about the wrong senator.
Copyright 2016 by Robert Sutton
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