Standing in a garish hotel lobby, casino music pounding, a Republican who has worked hard to help Donald Trump couldn’t quite believe how the final presidential debate had ended just a couple of hours earlier.
“He had a home run going — a home run — and then he pissed it away in ten seconds,” the person said. “Could he just try to win?”
The Republican was referring, of course, to Trump’s refusal to promise that he will abide by the results of the election, should he lose. “I will look at it at the time,” Trump said. “I will keep you in suspense.”
It seemed a crazy answer for a number of reasons, not least of which was that in the first debate, when Trump was asked, “Will you accept the outcome of the election?” he answered, “If (Hillary Clinton) wins, I will absolutely support her.” Then, Wednesday night, for reasons unknown, Trump said something completely different.
His comments electrified the press, resulting in furious questioning of Trump surrogates, who flatly contradicted their candidate and said that yes, Trump will accept election results. There were banner headlines. Trump’s remarks — those few seconds — became virtually the only story of the evening.
A few miles away, on the Vegas Strip, 26 uncommitted Nevada voters were watching the debate with the Republican consultant Frank Luntz. Although their minds weren’t fully made up, when Luntz pressed them on how they leaned, nine tilted toward Trump, eight toward Clinton, and nine were truly uncommitted. They had been given dials on which to register their reaction to everything the candidates said in real time. The dials controlled three lines on a screen, one each representing the Clinton and Trump leaners and the undecided.
Unlike in the media room at the debate site, Trump’s will-you-accept-the-results-of-the-election answer was not a bombshell in the focus group. When Trump began to answer, the line representing his leaners actually went up a bit. The line for undecided voters went down a bit, but quickly moved above the neutral line into positive territory. Even the line representing Clinton leaners wasn’t very low, just below the neutral line. No lines plunged. It did not seem as if the moment had really registered.
A short time later, all the lines rose — Clinton, Trump, and undecided –in a positive response to Clinton’s declaration that presidential candidates must accept the outcome of a free and fair election.
Questioned afterward, a few members of the focus group defended Trump. “It should be perfectly acceptable for him to say he’ll make that decision when the time comes,” argued one man.
But others, even some who leaned toward Trump, didn’t like what they heard. “It makes me very frustrated,” said one woman, “because he should say yes.”
“The American way is whoever wins is the winner,” said another. “You don’t de-legitimize the president.”
“He doesn’t understand our process,” said yet another.
“They didn’t like it because they think elections have an end,” Luntz told me after the debate. “It’s one of the reasons why some of the people turned against Trump — they felt like he didn’t accept the obvious.”
Now that the focus group members are back home, and have had a chance to read or watch coverage and analysis of the debate, they might well think of the accept-the-results question as a pivotal moment in the debate. But it didn’t seem like a bolt from the blue to them at the time.
As the voters’ dials told the story, each candidate had strong moments. Clinton’s best point came in the first portion of the debate, on the Supreme Court, when she said she would not seek to reverse Roe v. Wade. The Clinton leaners’ line literally rose off the chart, while the undecided line was very high, and the Trump leaners’ line was high, too. Clinton’s answer scored much better than Trump’s promise to appoint pro-life judges.
The situation was reversed a short time later, when moderator Chris Wallace brought up immigration. Trump’s build-a-wall, secure-the-border statement scored with everybody. When he said, “We have to have strong borders,” all three groups, Clinton leaners included, were near the top of the chart.
Clinton’s counter-attacks didn’t seem to work. When she pointed out that Trump had once referred to some Mexicans as rapists, all three lines went down — the voters have perhaps heard that one too many times. When Clinton tried to pivot to Vladimir Putin, the lines went down again.
Trump scored again on jobs and trade; when he criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement, all three lines went up, up, up.
When Trump slammed Clinton’s 30 years of experience — “The one thing you have over me is experience, but it’s bad experience because what you’ve done has turned out badly” — all three lines moved up.
Trump’s mention of Clinton’s email scandal was also well received. His remarks on jobs and the national debt had Clinton leaners’ dials moving up.
Trump had a few real loser lines, too. For example, when he said, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” all three lines, including his leaners, plunged. Nobody was buying that one.
But in general, Trump had a good night, a solid performance. When Luntz asked who won, the decision was Trump 14, Clinton 12. That might as well be a tie, but it was certainly an indication that Trump had at least as good a night as Clinton.
Until the question about the results of the election.
Perhaps Trump’s performance in the rest of the debate wasn’t quite the home run the Republican in the hotel lobby said. But it was good, and Trump was headed toward his best debate of the campaign — until those few seconds that turned the night completely around.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.