The FRONTLINE Interviews: Trump’s Road to the White House

Frank Luntz

Republican pollster

Frank Luntz is a pollster and GOP consultant whose voter focus groups have become key sources of analysis by journalists, pundits and politicians.

While Donald Trump's rhetoric in the 2016 campaign shocked and disturbed his critics, Luntz says that to those in his focus groups, his populist message carried broad appeal among voters who had grown to feel left behind during the Obama era. "You wouldn't know that if you lived in New York or Los Angeles, but you would know that if you were doing focus groups in Columbus, Ohio, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or in Grand Rapids, Michigan," according to Luntz.

As he explains in the following interview, Trump helped many Americans "understand that somebody was listening ... He would have lost in any other campaign. He would have been destroyed. No other candidate could do what he did, but he truly became the voice of the forgotten, the ignored and the voiceless."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Dec. 1, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start from the escalator scene when he announces that he is running for the president. He defined himself as an outsider from the very beginning.

He did the exact opposite of what every candidate has done before him. He didn't walk among the people. He descended on that escalator. He wasn't surrounded by people who were high-fiving him. It was like extending the middle finger to the political establishment. And in doing that in that very first moment, people took a look at him and said, "You know what, he really is different." And that is the key to Donald Trump's campaign from the beginning to the end, that he did exactly the opposite of what everyone has done, what everyone expects him to do, and he didn't back down and he didn't compromise and he didn't give in in any way.

... The rallies that followed, he would always focus on the forgotten voters. Who were the forgotten voters? Why did his message resonate so well with them?

I attended some of those early rallies and they reminded me so much of Barack Obama, but ... the antithesis of it. Trump's rallies were people who bought their clothing at Sears and Kmart. Trump's rallies were people who did not wear expensive coats or fancy shirts. Trump's rallies were the people who worked with their hands. They are the people who made a living, but didn't have a career. And they saw in him the person who would lift them up. These are people who Barack Obama talked about, the people who worked hard and played by the rules and had been left behind. See, Obama talked about them, but he didn't understand them, he didn't relate to them, he couldn't communicate to them. Trump did. And here is the wealthiest man ever to run for president connecting to the left behinds and the forgotten. They're not "deplorables." They're the forgotten, the people who literally represented Norman Rockwell's America, but they lived in conditions that they themselves never expected to.

When Hillary Clinton made that statement about the "basket of deplorables" --

It's the stupidest thing she could have done. It was genuinely moronic. And I don't believe that this just came up, because that's not one of her words. It's not words that work, for sure. Someone gave her that idea to insult them deliberately, to draw a contrast between her supporters and his supporters, and that was so tone deaf, that was legitimately campaign malpractice. You never insult the people you wish to win over. You can insult your opponent, you can insult your opponent's staff, but you don't insult the American people.

It did not have an impact on swing voters, because they didn't feel themselves deplorable, because they didn't feel themselves part of Trump's constituency, but from that point on, at every Trump rally ... they wore it with a badge of honor, and they couldn't wait to vote against her on Election Day, and that intensity never changed. ...

Why this phrase, "Make America Great Again"? What did he capture with that?

Seventy percent of the country believes that we're headed off on the wrong track significantly. Half of Americans believe that the country's best days are behind it. More than half believe that their kids are going to inherit a worse quality of life than they experienced. In every polling question I asked, it went from pessimism to cynicism, and Trump's "Make America Great Again" captured the will of those people to once again feel good about their country, to feel good about democracy and to be hopeful for their future.

The campaign structure, I want to go into the history a little bit --

What structure?

Well that's the question.

What structure? There, you can't ask a question about structure, because there was none, and the structure was changing all the way through the campaign. Until September it really didn't have a structure. The convention was chaotic. The debates were chaotic. The organization was chaotic. Getting delegates were chaotic. No matter, pick a month, and there was chaos. Up until October there was chaos. Arguably the first debate, arguably he was the worst prepared candidate in the history of American politics when he stepped up against Hillary Clinton for that first debate, and it showed. And he could claim as vociferous and as frequent as he wanted that he won that debate, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, he got crushed, he got killed. Voters by three to one, we have never had a debate, a post-debate polling that was as damaging to him.

Now it wasn't the same for the second and third debates. He did get his act together. The campaign did get their act together. But until the first of October, forget it, there was no organization.

It was like extending the middle finger to the political establishment. And in doing that in that very first moment, people took a look at him and said, ‘You know what, he really is different.’”

... The Never Trump movement. You get [Mitt] Romney up there sort of saying he's a deplorable, his business acumen is ridiculous, everything else.

I thought when Mitt Romney gave that analysis of Trump, that that was going to have an impact. I never realized how much it would backfire, that it actually looked worse on Romney. It was a well-articulated, well delivered critique that was delivered by the wrong person at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. If you wanted to deliver that message, you needed to have done it six months before. By that point, an army had been created, support had been created, that there was going to be blowback and that blowback would be featured on talk radio, on Fox News and all those elements on the right that you find on social media.

Romney never got heard, because within an hour of him delivering the speech, there was a cacophony of opponents. By that point Trump really had an army, Trump really had a movement and they weren't going to listen to any criticism delivered by people who came from that side of the aisle.

So the reaction of the Republican establishment and the lack of effect it had --

There is a story to be told here. The fundraising community within the Republican establishment could have stood up and could have been effective if they had acted in August or September or October. But the fact is that they kept their wallets and their pocketbooks closed. They refused to spend any money, because they simply assumed that Donald Trump would implode. Never have so many smart people so misjudged the marketplace, and in this case it was the marketplace of politics. They all got it wrong, and by the time they finally woke up, it was so late in the process that instead of them presenting a case for why Trump shouldn't be the nominee, they looked like crybabies. They actually helped Trump win the nomination because they created an intensity around him that guaranteed that in every primary, Trump was going to maximize his vote and his opponents were going to be split. ...

The message that he was giving, one of the tactics he seemed to be using was fear.

I'm going to interrupt you. I don't think his message was fear-based. I think his message was reality-based. For those who don't like Donald Trump, it had fear written through it, riddled with fear. For those who at least were willing to give him a second chance, and particularly for those who were supporting him, his message was day-to-day life. People in this country are afraid of illegal immigrants. People in this country have become afraid of random violence. They're afraid of jobs being shipped overseas. There is so much that scares Americans ... and Donald Trump is the only politician who talked to those concerns and those fears. To his critics it's fearmongering, to his supporters it's truth telling.

... During the early days, he would say things, outrageous things, the thing about The New York Times reporter who had a disability, some of the things about women, but the [John] McCain element, sitting down with you, saying that this guy was not a hero, there was a huge outcry from a lot of people, and yet it didn't seem to have an effect on the people that love Donald Trump. So explain that. ...

... I was sick as a dog the day that I was interviewing all the presidential candidates. Everyone showed up except for Jeb Bush and I had 20 minutes with them. And I asked some similar questions, and some things different, and I wasn't trying to challenge anybody. I was trying to enlighten the room and the audience that was watching. And Donald Trump is unlike anyone I had interviewed. And I'm watching the press, because up until that point, they sometimes paid attention and sometimes didn't, and when Trump sat down, everybody sat up, and they're all writing it down and they're all recording him. And he and I get into an exchange over John McCain, because he is taking shots at McCain and I thought they were gratuitous.

I was totally unprepared for what he said, but I was totally cognizant of what he was saying. John McCain is a war hero, by any definition, and Trump completely dismisses it. And during this interview, he keeps putting his hand up in front of me, and if you take a look at the video you'll see his hand is not farther away than this. And I was really annoyed, because I'm trying to ask him a legitimate question, and he is tearing into McCain for not doing enough for veterans. And finally I said, "Wait a minute, he is a war hero." Trump says, "He's not a war hero. He was caught. I like the guys who weren't caught."

I couldn't believe he said that. I was completely stunned. The entire press corps in front of me, we're talking a hundred reporters, cameramen, sound, reporters, and everyone is looking like this. And he doesn't miss a beat. If you watch the interview, he just rolls right on. And I guess I could have said to him, "Well what about the guys who were killed? They didn't make it back either. Are they war heroes?" But I didn't want to push it. I didn't mean to trip him up. I did want to hold him accountable, but I simply wanted an explanation, and what he gave, everyone in that room thought, "This is it. It's over." Face the Nation invited me on. This clip is played on every newscast for the next 48 hours. I even offered to help him out of it, because I didn't want him to be destroyed by that comment. I just didn't think he meant it. And he survived it.

And he survived every comment. He survived walls and Mexicans and making fun of reporters and women and foreigners and everything. That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and if you ever needed any evidence, just look at Donald Trump.

Why? It got to a point where he could say anything.

He even said, "I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue" and it would have no difference on his vote, and he was right, and the reason why is that he spoke the language of the American people. He spoke it the way the American people speak it. And he helped them understand that somebody was listening. The richest man ever hearing and fighting for the poorest voters, incredible. He was the right man at the right time with the right language, the right tone and the right demeanor. He would have lost in any other campaign. He would have been destroyed. No other candidate could do what he did, but he truly became the voice of the forgotten, the ignored, and the voiceless.

... So the last 10 days of the campaign, we'll start with the [FBI Director James] Comey letter. Why the effect --

I'm going to give you advice. The last 10 days of the campaign are not particularly relevant to the outcome. By the time the third debate happened, the dye was cast and everyone going back is going to say, "Well what about Comey? And what about Trump's rallies? And what about Hillary Clinton, how she handled herself?" No, this campaign was over at the end of the third debate, and Trump had done well enough to have proved to enough people in the right states that he was capable to be president and that Hillary Clinton had proven to enough people that she was inauthentic and not genuine and representative of the status quo.

Yeah, there were half a dozen events that the media focused on as being determinant. I'll tell you as someone who is doing focus groups virtually every day all across the country, the campaign was over on the 19th of October. When she failed to defeat him and he was able to be sufficiently presidential on that night, he had won the presidency.

There is so much that scares Americans … and Donald Trump is the only politician who talked to those concerns and those fears. To his critics it’s fearmongering, to his supporters it’s truth telling.”

What is your take about the campaign's abilities, going to the Rust Belt? What was going on there? Was it important? Was it not?

I do believe that the Trump campaign understood the American people, and particularly that forgotten America and the silent majority much better than Hillary Clinton did, because the Trump people were so much closer to them, closer to them in where they lived, closer to them in how they lived. The Clinton people were truly the Four Seasons campaign, elegant, refined. There is still mistakes, but they were above it all and the advertising was above it all, slick, Hollywood produced, a Steven Spielberg masterpiece to an American people that was eating at Denny's and the International House of Pancakes and staying at a Quality Inn or a Comfort Inn, not the Four Seasons or the Ritz.

That was one of the great differences between the two, and the Trump rallies, he would come out to whatever music. I'll never forget this. I was in Las Vegas at one of his rallies, and I came on the side and I got someone to let me into a box, because I wanted to sit slightly above and right adjacent to the stage so I could see what Trump was doing and see the audience response. And they're playing a number of different songs. People are coming out, so it's clear that Trump is about to show up. And right at the moment of the first chord ... Trump hits the stage. And I felt this wave go through me and that was the moment that I realized, "Holy shit this is real."

... And that wasn't being reported by the press.

Well, there is a problem, which is they put the press in the back, so they couldn't see the reaction of people in front of them. The press was so penned in that they couldn't get what was going on with the audience. But more importantly, I saw an authentic revolution ... and with Hillary Clinton I saw nothing. Hillary Clinton was in rooms that were almost like this one with chairs laid out so it took up as much space as possible. In Trump's rallies, you had to remove the chairs, you had to put people in the bottom of arenas, because they couldn't all fit otherwise.

Everything about her events were fake and phony and everything about his were real and authentic. And no matter what the commentators were saying, the visuals played themselves out. Go back to 1984 when [Ronald] Reagan was running for reelection. I think it was CBS that did the most horrific report about how he had failed in so many ways, and Mike Deaver still called over and said to the network, "Guys, thank you for last night. We loved it." And the anchor said, "Wait a minute, this was a negative report." And Deaver said, "No it wasn't. The pictures were beautiful." The pictures of Trump's rallies were beautiful.

So even though Clinton had the ground game, Clinton had the money, Clinton had everything going for in the campaign, [Steve] Bannon believes and says this way before, that he thinks that he is going to have razor thin upsets in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan and --

They didn't act that way.

So explain. I mean the story being told now is that a lot in the campaign thought they had lost.

Yeah, it's Monday morning quarterback ... I know many of the senior people in the Clinton campaign and they were absolutely convinced that they had won this election. And while they were disturbed with the impact of the Comey letter, they felt that she handled it well, they felt that the campaign handled it well by pushing back, by challenging him, in essence politicizing it. What they did not understand is that was simply confirming what millions of Americans thought about her, that there would be scandals surrounding her, that there would always be this sense that the rules don't apply, that it was simply affirming that she had been in Washington too long and that she didn't understand the criticisms of her, that she really didn't feel it.

Her people say that she is a completely different individual in person, but that doesn't matter. All we see is what we see on the campaign trail. For months she wouldn't do press conferences, for months she wouldn't allow people to challenge her. What did Donald Trump do every night in the primaries, win or lose? By the way, this was insane ... If I had been on the Trump campaign, I would have blown my brains out, because every election night he did a press conference. Every night she won she refused to do one. He was too available, she wasn't available enough. He was too authentic, she wasn't authentic enough. He connected to people because for good or bad or indifferent, he said what came to his mind. She never connected, because for better or worse, she just read from the script. And that had such an impact week after week, month after month.

And a lot of people say she missed speaking to Bill's folk, Bill's base, which is the White working class men and women.

She kept herself at a safe distance from the voters that she needed to support her, and the further that distance, the less likely she was to win. Donald Trump was constantly surrounded by them, constantly being challenged, constantly being opposed, and in that effort, he became more authentic and more real. And there is another key component to this, which is that those skeptical, cynical voters that were required for Trump to win didn't trust anyone. They thought all politicians were bad. The more that Trump put himself in jeopardy, and the harder that they attacked him, the more likely those cynics felt that he would stand tough and fight for them. The smartest thing Trump did had nothing to do with his advisors and everything to do with him, which is to allow the press to take him on and to be just as tough on them as they were on him.

Every time there was a brawl, every time they went head to head, Trump actually won those, even if he lost the moment, because there were millions of people watching those and they realized, "You know what, this guy is going to fight for me the way that he fights against them, and that's who I want to vote for."

... Election night, what was your sort of big take-away, how it came out, when they understood? Were you talking to anybody in the campaigns?

... One of the cable news networks slipped me the exit polls at 5:01, so I knew exactly what was going to happen, or so I thought. In all the states that Trump had to be close, he was losing by five or six points. Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio -- Ohio he was tied, that was the one state he was supposed to win, and in state after state he was so far behind that I knew that he was going to lose, because the exit polls don't get it wrong. The worst failure was in 2004 when they misdiagnosed Ohio by four points and Florida by three. And these are states where Trump is losing by six. And it didn't occur to me until about 8:45 as I'm watching some of these states come in and they've got 40 percent, 50 percent already counted, and Trump is doing much better, two reasons.

Number one is that nobody projected the turnout in the small town and rural areas -- that the people who had not participated in past elections came out in droves, and they were standing in line to make sure that their voice was heard, because they wanted to be heard. And second is that Trump voters actually told exit pollsters to go F themselves as they walked away. People who had Trump buttons or bumper stickers or pins or whatever they were wearing ... they weren't going to participate, because to do an exit poll is to acquiesce to the elite and to the media. So they told them to F off and they walked away. And that happened all across that Rust Belt.

I don't think Americans realize how many millions of dollars are spent on exit polling and how badly they got it wrong. The actual surveys were not that far off. Hillary Clinton was supposed to win by three points, according to Real Clear Politics. She won by a a point and a half nationwide, but the state-by-states were wrong, because there is that segment in that Rust Belt area that was damn well determined to be heard and they voted in unprecedented numbers.

That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and if you ever needed any evidence, just look at Donald Trump.”

And did the Republicans, did Trump's campaign get that right? They say they saw those numbers way before, they saw the early --

On Election Day I talked to about two dozen members of Congress, and to the last one they thought Trump was going to lose. You'll never hear that today. They'll all tell you in interviews like this, "I knew he was going to win." It's amazing how history is so accurate when you have that 20-20 advantage. On Election Day, every Clinton senior supporter thought she was going to win, without exception. On Election Day, every senior Republican that I talked to, with only one exception, thought that Trump was going to lose. They may not say that now, but that's what it was on Election Day.

... So what does Trump inherit? He's got the Freedom Caucus, he's got [Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan (R-Wisc.) in leadership position.

I'll answer you from a public opinion perspective. Donald Trump inherits an electorate that is more divided than it has been in decades, an electorate that did feel that this campaign was about the worst of America rather than the best. He inherits a country that cannot talk to each other, that does not respect each other. He inherits a collective mess at a time when more people are paying more attention to politics than they have since 1968. Good luck. He is going to need it.

But in Washington? ... I mean where is the GOP going from here? It's a very different story than what everybody expected to be being talking about.

Who would have thought that Paul Ryan and Donald Trump can do more than just shake hands, that they could actually embrace, that everyone is singing Kumbaya, and if Bob Dylan were to write songs for the right of center, they would be singing them right now. But that's the calm before the storm, because what happens next is governing. It's easy to repeal Obamacare. What do you replace it with? It's easy to talk about securing the border. How far are you willing to go? It's easy to talk about tax reform, but whose taxes are going to be reformed? These are serious issues. You have Paul Ryan who understands the policy, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who understands the politics, and Donald Trump who was elected on this. But it doesn't mean that they share the same agenda or the same priorities or even the same solutions. It's going to be tough and people are going to get gored.

The question that I can't answer right now is how patient will the Trump people be. I know from the focus groups I've done since the election that they're prepared to allow Trump to compromise to get things done, they're prepared to take a step against the lobbyists without locking them out completely, they're prepared to see the budget, the waste, the fraud and the abuse cut, but not necessarily a balanced budget, not yet. They're prepared to see a different reshaping of foreign policy. They're patient right now, because they sense a change is coming. I don't know how long that patience will last.

Everybody throughout this campaign was talking about the pivot, when he turns to a more presidential whatever. Does he pivot now? Does he start working with the system?

You guys need to get used to it that there is no pivot, that there is no normal, and the fact that there is no normal is the new normal. Whatever you projected in the past will not happen in the future. The only thing that is predictable is the unpredictability of Washington D.C. from this point forward, so get used to it. Buckle your seatbelts, sit back, because it is going to be a wild ride.

Let's go back to the three debates. Everybody said that he lost the three, the three debates were lost. You have a very different opinion. What about that third debate do you think resonated to the point that you think that people thought he won?

He was crushed in the first debate. I don't care whatever pronouncements he wants to make. He was crushed by every possible -- Our focus group thought he was awful. The third debate he essentially tied. There are people who thought she did well, who thought he did well. They thought that was the most substantial. They liked the host and they liked the substance and they basically thought that both of them did well enough. It was the second debate when Donald Trump held Hillary Clinton accountable. The media came after him because he made that offhanded comment – "You belong in jail." When he looked her straight in the eye and said that, "There should be a commission to study the crimes you've done." And to my surprise my focus group said, "Absolutely." Even those who supported Hillary Clinton want to see these candidates held accountable.

So, for what the media saw as third world dictatorial politics, our voters saw as one candidate holding the other candidate accountable. ... The press didn't know anyone supporting Donald Trump, so if you don't know anyone who supports Donald Trump, it means that every time he speaks, you assume that he's failing, you assume in the debates that he is losing, because there is no one who is going to tell you otherwise.

In my focus groups, I was learning exactly the opposite, not for the first debate, but for the second and third -- that he was speaking the language of the American people, that he was holding Hillary Clinton accountable, that he was sufficiently presidential, and that he had the answers that they wanted and the change that they demanded.

You wouldn't know that if you lived in New York or Los Angeles, but you would know that if you were doing focus groups in Columbus, Ohio, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or in Grand Rapids, Michigan. ...

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