Has Donald Trump reached a turning point? That’s perhaps question one in US politics today following Thursday’s Fox News GOP debate. The Donald was center stage at this opening event of the primary campaign season, both literally and metaphorically. He’s the poll frontrunner, so perhaps he got more attention than the other contenders. Fox moderators jabbed him with pointed questions and Trump at times jabbed back.
His exchange with moderator Megyn Kelly was particularly heated. She asked him why he often publicly disparages women’s appearance, and whether that would make it easy for Democrats to portray him as part of a war on women. Mr. Trump basically side-stepped Ms. Kelly’s question, saying that “I frankly don’t have time for political correctness.” Then he implicitly threatened her by saying that perhaps he’d been nicer to her in the past than he should have been.
Trump kept the argument going after hours via his Twitter feed, in which he tweeted or re-tweeted numerous comments critical of Kelly’s question.
“I thought Megyn behaved very badly, personally,” said Trump to reporters after the debate was over.
This and other Trumpian reactions caused many pundits to downgrade Trump’s political future. “Morning Joe” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough predicted Trump might now lose up to eight points off his poll numbers.
A widely cited focus group of undecided GOP voters from pollster Frank Luntz didn’t react well to Trump’s antics as the night wore on. The group didn’t like Trump’s refusal to pledge support for the eventual Republican nominee. Voters complained about his name-calling and lack of specific solutions.
Brookings Institution senior fellow for governance William Galston echoed this reaction.
“Although it is hard to know the limits of what Trump’s supporters are willing to tolerate, my hunch is that the debate damaged his prospects,” Galston writes. “When challenged about numerous statements that seemed on their face to be demeaning to women, he had not effective response.”
But – and you know a “but” was coming – don’t all of us (and by “us” we mean the general political establishment and members of the punditocracy) seem a bit eager to pronounce the Age of Trump over?
So far he’s blundered his way into the early poll lead. Perhaps it’s mostly his emotion by itself that voters are responding to. They don’t want three-point plans. His supporters might desire anger, pure and simple.
Here’s a startling nugget, courtesy of University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter: 43 percent of Republicans say they are angry at President Obama “always, most of the time.”
“Donald Trump’s surge in the polls among Republican primary voters is likely due to his ability to give voice to frustration and anger among a large segment of the GOP base at the failure of Republicans in Congress to reverse the politics of the Obama administration over the past six and a half years,” write Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster of Emory University in Crystal Ball.
In that context, Trump’s dismissive replies to debate questions might only make his supporters grow fonder. Remember, very few of them actually watched the debate through, as did Luntz’s focus group voters. Instead, they’ll experience it as snippets and media sound bites. That can produce a very different emotional reaction.
Plus, don’t underestimate Trump’s sheer television ability. His twist and dodge on Kelly’s tough question was a textbook performance. He avoided a specific answer and reframed the query on his terms. She didn’t ask, “What do you think about political correctness?” But that’s the answer he gave.
Rule 1 of TV training: Don’t answer the question you’re asked. Answer the question you wish you’d been asked.
Bottom line: Don’t write Trump’s political epitaph yet. It seems to us there’s some wishful thinking in the establishment’s pronouncements he’s now headed downhill.