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

Tony Fabrizio

Trump campaign pollster

Tony Fabrizio is a Republican pollster and strategist, and a veteran of numerous presidential campaigns in the U.S. and abroad.

Fabrizio joined the Trump campaign in May 2016, and is credited with writing an influential internal memo two weeks before Election Day arguing that Trump needed to expand the map by competing more aggressively in Democratic-friendly states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump would ultimately win both states in his victory over Hillary Clinton.

In this interview, Fabrizio speaks in detail about the Trump campaign's efforts to target voters in crucial swing states like Florida, and how Trump was able to repeatedly survive controversy. Whether it was the release of an Access Hollywood tape in which Trump could be heard speaking in vulgar sexual terms about women, or his attacks on a Gold Star family, Fabrizio says that for voters, "Clinton's character was more important than Trump's temperament."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Dec. 7, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell me that story, when you joined the Trump campaign.

I was contacted by Paul Manafort right before he was brought into the campaign by Mr. Trump. And Paul asked me if I'd be interested in coming onboard and serving as the chief pollster. And of course, my reaction was, "Well, Mr. Trump really doesn't like pollsters." And he said, "Well," he said, "that's true." He said, "But he does recognize that we need to run a full-blown campaign. And so, you know, are you interested?"

And having worked with Paul a number of times and known Paul over the years, of course I was interested. And of course, I was interested because, having worked during the primaries for Rand Paul, and watching the Donald Trump phenomenon play out ... it was kind of amazing. As I mentioned, I had been doing this since 1978 professionally. I've had my own polling firm for the last 26 years, and I've done hundreds, if not thousands of campaigns. I've elected presidents on three continents. And to watch this was truly spectacular. And then becoming an insider to it was even more of an eye-opening experience. ...

... When you ran the Rand Paul section of the primaries, how are you looking at what's going on over here? How do you guys view it, and to some extent, fear it?

... I remember when he got into the race, everybody in the Republican professional political class chuckled. And my only question was, if he's willing to commit money, his own personal money, and he's willing to file the necessary disclosures, then my guess is he's more serious than everybody thinks. And one of the things we did know, and if you go back and look at most everybody's announcement statements running for president, they all tried to capture what we all saw in our research. And that was, particularly among Republican primary voters, there was a deep-seated anger and dissatisfaction of government.

And even Republican primary voters felt that the Republicans in Congress had let them down. So there was this throw-the-bums-out mentality that was significantly greater than we'd ever seen before. Now the funny thing is, is that if you go back and you look, 2008 was a change election; 2010 was a change election the other way. Because 2012 we re-elected, or they re-elected Barack Obama, everybody thought that movement changed. But no, in 2014, again, we saw another wave election. So everybody kind of thought there was no more wave left. The truth of the matter is, the wave never crashed.

When you're watching some of this stuff go on, did you ever sit down and talk to Rand Paul, and sort of say, "It's not looking good here, because the anger out there, he's capturing it and you're not"?

Well, but we still tried to capture it ... I mean he talked about, you know, basically breaking the Washington cartel, which, by the way, Ted Cruz talked about the same thing. The problem is, is that everybody was talking about it relative to one another.

So at first, before there was Donald Trump, you had the governors versus the senators. So the governors were advantaged because they weren't of Washington, hence one of the reasons why Scott Walker had, you know, basically risen to the top of the polls. And even though you may have not been in Washington a long time, Ted Cruz a couple of years, Rand Paul less than a term, you still were of Washington. And so it was difficult to make that distinction.

And along comes this guy, Donald Trump, who has no connection to Washington. But besides not having a connection to Washington, he had one characteristic that none of the others had. And that was, he said things nobody else would say. And why that was important for him ... was, one of the questions that I asked, even during the primary when I was still with Rand, was, "Which of the following would you most prefer in a candidate for president, a candidate who spoke their mind and was politically incorrect, even though you disagreed with what they said at times, or a candidate who was more politically correct and basically shaved the edges off what they were saying to not offend, OK?"

And it was three to one, a candidate who spoke their mind and was not politically correct, but just said what they felt. And that's something Donald Trump had in spades, and nobody else in the field had in spades. And so when he'd say things that people were like, "Oh, this is it, this is going to be the thing that breaks him," it actually just reinforced in the minds of Republican primary voters -- they may not have been happy what he said -- but it reinforced in their minds that if he had the guts to say what other people wouldn't say, then you know what? He'd shoot straight with them. And that's what they were looking for. They were looking for a disrupter. And by the way, it just wasn't Republicans.

As is evident in the numbers of the --

Exactly ... You know, when he made his comments about Mexicans ... everybody was convinced, "That's it. He just blew himself up ... This is going to be the death of him." And my reaction to Rand and the campaign team was, "No, absolutely not." I said, "One of the things the Republican elites in Washington and the media don't get [about] the disconnect on immigration is, it isn't that Republicans are hard-hearted. It's there is a deep respect for the rule of law and fairness. So if I come and I apply and I do the things I need to do, why would we allow a group of people who broke the law to jump the line on those people who were following the law?" That's the disconnect that Republicans can't ... get past.

And they never understood the level of anger of how long this had been going on, and nobody did anything about it. Trump's wall was a symbol of stopping it. It wasn't so much building the wall, as it became a symbol. And every single one of his opponents ridiculed it. And when they ridiculed it, they put themselves opposite his position. So he became the guy who was the fiercest anti-illegal immigration person.

And so they themselves, in a lot of ways, self-inflicted their own wounds, because they thought there was a constituency there to be opposite of Trump's position. But they didn't understand that t illegal immigration fed into the anger that was bubbling there. It was one of the symbolic issues that were bubbling.

... This campaign, the way it was defined in the media and by his opponents, was "amateur," didn't know what they were doing. But what was going on behind the scenes, actually, is what won the election eventually.

Well the funny thing is, being one of the professionals inside, there certainly was -- I don't want to say a bias, but there certainly was -- I'm trying to think of the right word, because it's not bias, there was some level of, not suspicion, but --


No, not even disdain. It was just if you had a lot of political experience, maybe you were too much a part of the establishment, and so you weren't so much of a guerilla fighter. And so that was the tension that ran in the campaign. And it wasn't necessarily a negative tension, as much as it was just a tension. And so there were some times where the establishment folks -- not establishment, but the professionals, if you will -- won, sometimes where they didn't.

... To the outside world, the campaign was amateur because they were doing things most other campaigns wouldn't dream of doing. Yet it didn't prove to be so amateur at the end of the day.

... I will tell you, that the one thing that no one could quantify, no one, I defy anybody, I'll sit and debate them as long as they want, can quantify, was the power of the natural insight and power of Donald J. Trump's own understanding of mass media. And when he said we didn't need to be on TV early, your first reaction is, "Come on. We're getting our brains beat in on TV." But then you're looking at the data, and you're like, "Well, OK."

I remember going into our convention. The Clinton people had been running, Priorities USA had been running, weeks and weeks of TV against us, just pummeling Mr. Trump. I mean pummeling him, I mean everything you could imagine. And, you know, we're watching all the key states. If you've done this several times, the way it always works, or the way it usually works, TV in presidential races is not nearly as important as it is in like senate races or gubernatorial races or down ballot races. But it has a marginal impact, and oftentimes in close states, the marginal impact is what makes the difference.

But what we saw happening as we entered our convention, and even to the end of our convention, is we saw whatever impact their ads had melt away, just like totally get washed away. So it was like, are they building sandcastles on the beach, and every time we can build a good wave, we just wash them away? And the answer to that question, obviously in hindsight, was yes. But it was a little hard to believe as it was happening. ...

He’d shoot straight with them. And that’s what they were looking for. They were looking for a disrupter.”

Let's back up for a second. Talk about what the campaign was doing. So you were identifying people that would help fund the campaign. You were identifying people that were supporters. You were identifying people that were supporters and hadn't voted but might vote. You were identifying places where the speeches should be given. You were identifying what the message should be in different locations. This is amazingly detailed and amazingly important to sort of understand how politics is done today in America.

Yes, that all was taking place at different levels. So I don't know how far ahead you want to jump, but for example ... on the speeches ... we were looking at media markets. [Digital director] Brad [Parscale] and his people, from doing analyses, were looking at the media markets. And we were able to tell what media markets we were underperforming or overperforming from past elections, [Mitt] Romney or [George W.] Bush. And so we knew.

One of the groups that we created early on in the campaign from the polling was what I called Trump targets. And we called them pretty much Trump targets all the way through. These were voters who wanted to change direction, wanted a new direction, weren't voting for Trump, weren't hardcore Democrats, weren't hardcore liberals, weren't hardcore Hillary supporters. And that number of voters was anywhere between seven and 14 percent, depending on the target state we were looking at. And those voters tended to be under the age of 55. Lots of times they were 18 to 34. But a lot of times they were 35 to 55.

That's the margin of victory in every one of those states.

Pretty much.

Explain why that's important.

Those voters were extraordinarily important. But looking at it from the standpoint of where we would go and where we wouldn't go, we would report out to the senior team what markets those voters were concentrated in. So where we had our upside, what counties? Because in a lot of states, you have key counties. So you know, there are counties that dominate other counties.

... In Florida, literally, if you changed four counties in Florida, 29 electoral votes would have been off the table. Four counties. ...

... The rallies. Talk about the potency of the rallies, the way that he was able to ride the emotions of those rallies, how he was able to deliver his message in this potent fashion, with the help of you guys telling him where to go.

It was all him.

How do you get 20,000 people?

You don't do anything, they do it. The thing that was most eye-opening, historically, in American politics before Donald Trump, the most successful campaigns have been drawing people to rallies, or campaigns like George McGovern and Barry Goldwater. You know what happened to both of those? They went down to crashing defeats. Donald Trump defied all those rules. He attracted numbers of people that were just phenomenal. And it was his insistence that they be done. ...

Standing in front of those people reaffirmed what he believed in his gut. I mean let's face it, when Donald Trump got into this race, I'm not even sure Corey Lewandowski or the people around him thought that he had a chance in hell. There was one person that did, and that was Donald Trump. And he believed, from day one, that he could win. And he believed, from day one, that there was an audience for the message he had to sell. And when he first went out there and said, "Make America great again," I didn't test any of that. In fact, the first time I tested it, I busted out laughing to myself, because it was just, again, reinforcement that he understood what was going on in this election better than most of us.

And the first time I tested it, I tested it basically, "Make America great again" versus "America has always been great," basically Clinton's response. And it was a 20 point margin in favor of what Trump said. And I said to myself, "Why does Clinton keep on saying what she's saying? It's not a winner. What he says is a winner. What she says is not." And even public polls showed the same thing. He wanted to do it that way.

You started out before saying that you get hired on this thing, you say, "What the hell is this for? Because this guy doesn't believe in polls." Once he got going, was he actually interested in seeing results?

My experience with him was, he cared about the horse race. The targeting and all the rest of the stuff, he understood that it had value, but that was not something he really got into the weeds on. You weren't going to tell him what to say based on a poll-tested message.

... As it turned out, lots of what he said was extraordinarily popular without being tested before he said it. Trade deals. Muslim ban. I mean so much of the stuff he said was popular. And it was all from his gut. Now the one thing that was probably the most difficult, and he admitted this at the end, was he would talk about change, but not as directly as he needed to talk about change. And in the last few weeks, when he started to really focus on draining the swamp, that's when the change message really came into play.

One of the things that we noticed in the last month, you know, in the beginning of October, was there still were a number of those target voters and change voters that were out there, available to us. And we really needed to focus. And one of the conversations that took place was coming up with a reform Washington agenda, which had been on the table for a couple of months. But now, it became even more important.

... And he would go out there and talk about it. Just the one thing is, if he doesn't really internalize it, and he doesn't wrap his arms around it, he's not going to talk about it that much. You know, he'll mention it in his teleprompter thing. But when he goes off script is when he's most powerful. He's going to focus on the things he's most comfortable with, and he gets the best reaction to.

And one of the things is those crowds at those rallies, they were tremendously energizing to him. I mean, it was a symbiotic relationship. They fed off of each other. The crowd fed off of him, he fed off of the crowd. And the bigger the crowds they showed, the more the next crowds were. It was truly amazing to see. ...

To the outside world, the campaign was amateur because they were doing things most other campaigns wouldn’t dream of doing. Yet it didn’t prove to be so amateur at the end of the day.”

The conventions. I'm sure you did numbers before and after.


The way it was viewed by the media and the establishment was that Republican convention was dour, second-rate stars. The Democratic convention was presidents and wives of presidents and glamorous Hollywood stars and upbeat message. What were you seeing?

... It was media-driven bullshit. One of the things I've said numerous times to media is, so the Republican convention was dour. It was dark. We weren't talking about happy times. I don't know, maybe the fact that two-thirds of America think that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Maybe the fact that 60 percent of America wanted change of direction. So were we the ones out of step of what was going on in America? Or was it the other guys that were talking about happy days are here again, and we'll continue going in this direction?

... What really fundamentally changed the race was two things. One is [Khizr] Kahn, which again, it became a focus on us, not a focus on her. ...

What was the importance of Kahn? What did it do?

It took the focus off of our core message. And it made the race more about Donald Trump's temperament than it did about Hillary Clinton and her dishonesty, her policies, change. It took it off of all the things that were important to us.

With the result?

Well, the result being that it passed. And once it passed, the race normalized again, and started to normalize again. ...

Why did it pass?

Voters. One of the questions that we asked, particularly towards the end of the campaign, "What's more important to you, Donald Trump's temperament and behavior or Hillary Clinton's ethics, dishonesty?" I'm paraphrasing the question. And consistently, Clinton's character was more important than Trump's temperament. Voters have to make decisions. They had two choices, fundamentally. ...

The "deplorables" statement by Hillary?

Well first of all, I cannot imagine that that was a planned thing. I cannot imagine. And so think of the deplorables statement this way. The deplorables statement from Hillary Clinton was like throwing a huge juicy t-bone steak into a pit of people -- into a pit where they were already looking to savage her. I mean Donald Trump's supporters both loved Donald Trump and despised Hillary Clinton. She was, to them, everything that was wrong with this country. And by the way ... by the time she got around to calling them deplorables, they were already sick of the media making fun of them.

I'm not suggesting that, you know, rude behavior on either side is productive or helpful, but a lot of reporters caught a lot of crap at Trump rallies because Trump followers felt they weren't getting a fair shake. And they were being portrayed as these crazy people who were all white supremacists and all ... They were just offended by how they were being portrayed. And calling them deplorables was kind of like the final nail in the coffin.

The use of this by Trump also at these rallies, and focusing on the despicable press didn't hurt.

... This whole dislike of the media among the base of voters that Trump attracted is nothing new. Again, it's just been this building cauldron. And they've never had someone before who was willing to call out the media the way Donald Trump was willing to call them out. And the fact that he was willing to call them out, only emboldened them and validated what they had felt all along. And so it was, again, a symbiotic relationship, where they fed off of him, he fed off of them. ...

The deplorables statement. Why did that supposedly hurt her as much as everybody says it did, when the statements by Trump about, you know, the judge or Muslims or all these other things didn't stick? Not one of these things stuck.

Well, one main reason is, it further energized the group that was already energized. Again, it just added more fuel to the fire there, you know what I'm saying, number one. And she didn't need our base to be any more energized, because she was having trouble energizing her base. Two is, she attacked him for saying stuff like that. So when she herself started to talk that way, how did that help her? It undermined her brand to some extent. ...

[Steve] Bannon and Kellyanne [Conway]. When they came on, how did it adjust? How important was it? How did it affect Trump?

... Kellyanne had the title of campaign manager, but really kind of evolved into surrogate-in-chief. She was the campaign face. I mean if you really think about it, [Trump spokesman] Jason Miller was basically the senior comps person. Jason did TV, but not nearly the amount that Kellyanne did. And so Kellyanne really became the official mouthpiece, second only to Mr. Trump himself.

... I think Bannon became -- It's wrong to call him the Trump whisperer, because nobody convinces Donald Trump to do something he doesn't want to do. But he and Mr. Trump had a relationship. They knew each other. He was comfortable with Steve. And so Steve was able to help put together some of the, you know, the Mexico visit, you know. I know Steve is credited with bringing the Clinton women to the debate, those types of things. ...

The first debate. Hillary won, supposedly. How was it deemed within the campaign? Was it a down point?

... From my perspective, Donald Trump standing on that stage with her alone made it a victory for him. And so, you know, were there missed opportunities? Sure. There were missed opportunities on both sides though. Did his performance certainly improve over the next two? Yes, absolutely. Like anybody else, Donald Trump learns. And he did learn. ...

Those crowds at those rallies, they were tremendously energizing to him. I mean, it was a symbiotic relationship. They fed off of each other. The crowd fed off of him, he fed off of the crowd.”

The Access Hollywood tape. Was that sort of the low point of all low points for the campaign?

I would say it probably was, because of the initial shock of it. Look, we had gotten used to him going up and talking at the rallies and saying stuff that maybe the media jumped on, and so on and so forth. But I think this kind of came out of left field for most of us. I think it came out of left field for the senior leadership of the campaign. And you were never quite sure when it happened, what twists and turns it was going to take.

But again, at the time it happened, and by the time it happened, the question became, what was the ultimate fallout going to be? And I know there was a lot of conversation about what kind of impact this would have on female voters. Well, Donald Trump won the white female voters. At the end of the day, was this going to be disqualifying? And we were in new territory here. No one had ever seen anything like this happen. There was no way to tell. There was an initial, you know, slump in the numbers.

But they bounced back quicker, and they bounced back quicker because now we shifted from that, we shifted to more [FBI Director James] Comey. You know what I'm saying? I mean if you think of those things, you went from that, which was temperament, to Comey, which was integrity and character, and it really helped frame the race in a lot of respects, on what voters were concerned about.

... And the numbers, you found, jumped tremendously after the third debate and the Comey letter comes out?

The numbers really started to close after the third debate and after the Comey thing. But there were other factors at play, too. One is, there was no Trump slump, you know what I'm saying? He was like a man possessed. He was on message. He was focused. He was talking about change. He was talking about draining the swamp, you know what I'm saying? He was focused on Clinton. He was focused on the FBI. I mean, he was making the case that needed to be made in the final days like we'd never seen before.

And October 24th, you wrote a proposal for the final two weeks defining the fact that you needed to expand the map ... How was that received?

They did it. And I think they recognized that there was an opportunity and that we needed to do it. And if there was going to be a place that we could do it, it would be in those rust belt states, where his message resonated. ...

So after the memos, after sort of the decisions were made, the philosophy changed a little bit, all of a sudden Trump is in Wisconsin, is in Michigan, is in Pennsylvania.

Yep. And we, through the end, we saw [the polls] closing. Our final poll in Florida had us tied. We won by one point, one point, two points. Michigan, I think our last numbers we were down one and a half. But that was Friday, and we had been closing all week. Pennsylvania, we had been closing all week, and it was down to like a point. Wisconsin was the only one that was a little bit bigger, I think it was two or three. But we had been closing consistently the whole week.

And so when you see that kind of momentum in one direction, you know, I will tell you that no matter what you thought on Friday or Tuesday or Monday, once again, the media proves that they somehow can't conduct an exit poll, because I think pretty much everybody at the top level of the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaign and senior media got the exit polls after 5 o'clock. And they were just downright damn depressing. And I don't know if you had access to them, or you know what they said, but they had us losing every state. I mean we were getting crushed in like Michigan, Pennsylvania, I mean just -- And so, from like 6 o'clock on, you know, we're all like, "Oh my God. How could this be?" You know what I'm saying? I mean, were we that wrong? I mean, to lose Pennsylvania by one is a big difference than losing it by five. You know what I'm saying? So if it had been one, that would be one thing. It was at five. So that means everything you were seeing was wrong at the end.

And then it turned out the other way. I mean when the results started coming in, we were like, "Well, wait a minute. Those exits were so screwed up," because you had certain places where she was overperforming. But in most places, we were overperforming, she was underperforming.

... Election night, where were you?

I was in D.C. I never go to wherever it is. I spend it with my staff on election night. But I was in contact, by email and text with the people up there, and the people in the war room. And it was quite amazing.

... When did you know for sure?

... I emailed them, and I said, "Guys, somebody better go tell DJT," which was how we referred to him in email, "that he's the president-elect. We're going to carry Michigan, and we're going to carry Maine-02." And Steve Bannon emails me back and goes, "Why, did AP or somebody call?" And I'm like, "No, trust me. Don't wait for them, because they've been behind all night, because they're freaking out because their exit polls are all wrong." And, you know, Kellyanne was like, "Yeah, I think he's right. I think it's done."

And so this was like 1 o'clock, you know. So it was well before anybody had called, because at that point, it was clear, it was Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania and Maine-02, I'm trying to remember which states. At that point, I was already probably celebrating a little bit too much at that point.

But we were looking at all the key counties, you know, much like they were doing. It was just that we were getting them faster, because they're looking at so many, we were looking at only the real key counties that we knew what we needed to do.

... Did you ever afterwards have a conversation with Mr. Trump?

No, well not directly. But I suspect that if I did, his line to me would be, "See, I told you. I told you so." He's very much, was very convinced, from the very beginning, no matter how skeptical everybody else was, he was convinced, like I said. The only person in the room, when this all started, that believed it and knew it would happen, was him.

... Lastly, when you look at America today, and how this thing broke down, it's a very rural/urban dynamic going. What did the results of this sort of say about America today?

I think you really need to back away from trying to draw a huge inference, because I think the way people are clustered and where they live, I think you have the two ends of the spectrum. I think if you live in an urban area, if you're a minority, you're generally not going to be a Republican supporter. But if you're a white that lives in an urban area, you're generally going to be more liberal than you are if you're a white that lives in a rural area.

And these two groups are going to have different opinions because of how they view themselves and how they view where the country is headed ... And so I think that drove more of it than necessarily where they lived, per se. I think where they lived is reflective of their values and where they chose to live. I mean, you could choose not to live in a rural area. You could choose not to live in an urban area. I think the group that's always been in the middle, and always swings back and forth, are the suburban voters, that kind of have a foot in both camps. And they did this time, too. They did this time, too.

What changed is that these voters here responded to Donald Trump in a way that these voters did not respond for Hillary Clinton. I mean they really, really did. And so that's the difference. But I think, you know, there's always a danger. If Donald Trump doesn't perform ... these voters will turn on him just the way they turn on anybody. What everybody missed here is Donald Trump became the tip of the spear of an anger and frustration. He became the spokesman, if you will, for that anger and frustration of every man and every woman, you know, of the everyday, every man, every woman. And he's got to live up to what he said, because they accepted what he said. And if he doesn't, they'll punish him. If he does, they will reward him handsomely.

What about the anger against Washington?. Is it directly tied to the dysfunction? Is it directly tied to the obstruction? This isn't the first time we've seen it.

We asked a question, agree/disagree. "Washington is rigged against the average person. And it is run by the special interests for the special interests and the politicians. And the average American never will get a fair shake." I'm paraphrasing the question. What percentage do you think agreed with that? If I told you 87 percent agreed with that statement. In fact, 40 some-odd percent of Hillary Clinton voters agreed with that statement, almost half of them. And 70 some-odd percent of them strongly agreed with the statement.

So people underestimated what people think about Washington. They think it is this big club, where everybody just walks around. I mean if you said to them that people are walking around with bags of money, handing it to each other, most of them would believe you. They don't have any concept. All they know is, it's a bunch of people who make promises that never deliver. And they wind up richer, and we wind up poorer. And nothing ever gets done. They fight like a bunch of children. ...

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