In a nondescript office building adjacent to a sports bar in the Washington suburbs, one Republican operative spent Monday night trying to figure out what the heck is going on out there.
Frank Luntz, a longtime GOP zeitgeist guru, assembled 29 Donald Trump supporters in a white-walled room — and a gaggle of reporters behind one-way glass. The goal, he said, was to try to drill down on how lasting, how real and how strong is the Mack truck that has jackknifed his party this summer.
Two hours later, he declared his answer: "He is much stronger, his support is much more solid than I ever would have expected." At times, Luntz appeared rattled by what he was hearing.
Will Trump be the nominee?
"It's now totally conceivable that he will be," he said.
Luntz had done something similar earlier and come away with very different results. After the first Republican presidential debate, an on-air focus group told him Trump had tanked. Luntz relayed the results on Fox News and became the target of a Trump tirade.
Monday's group wasn't representative of the GOP primary electorate but of a typical Trump fan, Luntz said. It was mostly white, middle-aged, educated and Republican. The 17 women and 12 men all lived in the Washington area. (They wore name tags, but most of their names weren't visible to the reporters.) A few had voted for President Obama. A handful weren't solid Trump supporters.
On some level, the comments were familiar to anyone who's spent some time with a certain sort of Republican base voter in the last few years.
The group was overwhelmingly "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore." (Luntz gave them the line from the film "Network," and 19 of the 29 embraced the label.) Most said they did not believe Obama loves America. Nine harbored doubts about Obama's citizenship.
They used words like "useless," "irrelevant," "lame" and a few less polite phrases to describe Congress. They didn't trust politicians, and they were nearly as fed up with their own party as with the Democrats. They cared a lot less about social issues than about the debt, the border, the state of the economy and national security. Above all, they were racked by a sense that the country is going to hell.
"It's been years and years of feeling like you're been lied to," said one especially pessimistic middle-aged woman. "Nothing getting better; everything, across the board, getting worse."
This dark assessment of the state of affairs is familiar. Much of the talk echoed the complaints of tea party conservatives who emerged in Obama's first term. If there was a new strain in this group, in the intervening five years, these disaffected conservatives had become more focused on the belief that the U.S. had fallen in the world-power pecking order. National security was the worry most shared.
"We grew up in an America that was the leader of the world. Today, we're quickly becoming a third world," one man said.
Seriously? Luntz pressed them. In a show of hands, most agreed.
"As a power, Putin slaps us around like we're Tahiti," the man explained. "Nobody respects the United States as an authority on anything."
This is where Trump comes in. Trump doesn't take any flak and he tells it like it is, the group agreed. He may not be polished or politically correct, but he makes me feel like someone is finally saying what I've been thinking, one man said.
"There's something about Trump. He looks you in the face, he doesn't care what you think of him," said one woman.
And about here was when Luntz's legs started to shake. For the next hour, the Trump supporters looked at almost every potential negative about the billionaire celebrity real estate tycoon candidate and viewed it as a positive.
Whereas conventional wisdom would say Trump looks like an out-of-touch rich guy, they saw something else. "He's successful in this country just like we want to be," one woman said. Trump isn't a boastful egomaniac; "he's proud of his success." (Failed 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made the mistake of not being proud, they said.)
"I like the confidence. It makes me feel confident," one woman said.
Trump isn't a clown; he's just an entertainer. He's not a flip-flopper on the issues; he's just a reformed New Yorker. "I would hope he'd evolve," one woman said.
Luntz said afterward, "There's like an alternative universe."
There were two signs of trouble for Trump: His comments dismissing John McCain's war service and his remarks about women. Veterans and several others in the group said they were offended by Trump's insult of McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. A few women said they questioned whether Trump respected women. Still, some of these same people said they'd support Trump.
Twenty-one of the 29 said they'd vote for Trump as an independent candidate, even if Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas conservative, was the GOP nominee.
"Nothing disqualifies Trump," Luntz said, who looked back on the 1992 presidential race and the rise of independent candidate Ross Perot. "This is stronger than Perot. This is more intense than Perot."
For more campaign coverage, follow @khennessey
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