GWEN IFILL: Donald Trump has now been leading in the polls for eight months, making him the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican Party nomination this summer.
His celebrity has driven media coverage, which in turn has boosted his celebrity. The result? The New York Times found Trump has received nearly $2 billion of free media attention during the campaign, nearly twice as much as the original entire 17-member field.
Today, he once again demonstrated one of his greatest skills, hijacking the news cycle with a provocative comment, this one about abortion.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?
DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: For the woman?
DONALD TRUMP: Yes. There has to be some form.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Ten cents, 10 years, what?
DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know. That, I don’t know.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, why not?
DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: You take positions on everything else.
DONALD TRUMP: I find — I do take positions on everything else. It’s a very complicated position.
GWEN IFILL: Today, both pro- and anti-abortion forces rejected Trump’s latest controversial statement.
So, why does he survive? And how has he upended politics?
We zero in on what’s behind Trump’s appeal and what’s changed about the electorate with Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s chief political strategist in the 2012 election, McKay Coppins, a senior writer for BuzzFeed News who has covered Trump and is the author of a book on the Republican Party’s efforts to take back the White House called “The Wilderness,” and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, how much has Donald Trump exploded politics as usual?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, University of Pennsylvania: Donald Trump has changed the way we talk about politics, the kinds of things that are covered in news, and the ways in which politicians gain access.
Essentially, his free airtime is what anybody else in an earlier campaign would have paid for and called advertising.
GWEN IFILL: McKay Coppins, has he changed inherently the way the GOP is formulated, the way it functions, the kinds of candidates it will nominate in the future?
MCKAY COPPINS, BuzzFeed News: I think he’s exploited a shift in the GOP over the past eight years or so in the Obama era, which is basically the crumbling of the traditional GOP establishment, the party committees, the fund-raisers, the donors, who used to wield all the influence, and now has kind of taken advantage of this new right-wing counterestablishment that is made up of new right-wing media outfits and pressure groups, and really figured out how to court them and ride a wave of influence into becoming basically, you know, the six-, seven-, eight-month front-runner of the Republican Party nomination fight.
GWEN IFILL: Stuart Stevens, it hasn’t even been four years since you were helping to run Mitt Romney’s campaign, yet so much seems to have changed. You have been pretty outspoken in your criticism of Donald Trump.
But take a step back as an analyst and tell me, why do you think this is right now?
STUART STEVENS, Chief Strategist, Mitt Romney’s 2012 Campaign: Well, I think there’s two ways to look at Donald Trump.
One is that he’s a function of a weak field that miscalculated what I would call the “Guns of August” — I refer to that great book about the beginning of World War I. No one wanted it to happen, and yet it’s happening.
The other would be that actually maybe it’s not that unusual that we have seen, in crowded fields, where Republican primary electorate will nominate someone who says things and does things that makes him unelectable in the fall. We saw this in Indiana with Mourdock in the Senate race. We saw it with Todd Akin in the Missouri Senate race, with Sharron Angle in Nevada.
So, what could be happening here is just, on a national scale, we have seen played out in states, which might not be that crazy, because, really, a national primary is not really a national primary, but a series of states that are playing out. It’s the same people that vote in the states. We just haven’t seen it happen in a presidential primary.
GWEN IFILL: One of the things, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, which seems different about Donald Trump is, he has great skill at changing the topic and of stealing the headline from anybody else who seems to be having a good day. Is that also part of what you see that is different?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes.
When Trump — when a vulnerability opens up for Mr. Trump, and the news cycle begins to feature the vulnerability, he effectively changes the topic by attacking, by doing something outrageous or eccentric, and suddenly the entire news agenda shifts. And instead of focusing on the serious potential exchange and the vulnerability that has initially been exposed, we’re galloping off in some other direction.
And the electorate isn’t informed about the substantive reason that there might have been concern about the original statement.
GWEN IFILL: This is interesting, because you make that point on a day when we have been — we’re watching a lot of the kind of coverage of his statement about abortion.
And he has since put out a statement, McKay Coppins, saying that’s not exactly what he meant. Is that an example of what Kathleen is talking about?
MCKAY COPPINS: Yes, I do think that Trump has a remarkable skill for hijacking news cycles.
I also think that it’s what drives him more than almost anything else. I remember I spent some time with him in 2014, and I ended up on his plane, you know, the massive 757 Trump jet, and I remember watching him. He had just given a speech that morning in New Hampshire. I remember watching him spend 20, 30 minutes changing the channel back from MSNBC, to CNN, to FOX News, just searching desperately for some coverage of the speech.
And I remember that the thing that struck me the whole time I spent with him was how much he cared about media coverage, how much he cared about attention. And in a sense, his entire presidential campaign has been one long media spectacle.
I don’t know how much it prepares him or shows whether he’s ready to be president, but it certainly shows his — shows off his skills as a marketer, and he really does have unparalleled talent in that regard.
GWEN IFILL: So, Stuart Stevens, let’s pivot back to what you were saying a moment ago about what happens in the fall campaign.
We have seen polls in Wisconsin today, a new one, that shows that Donald Trump is at 70 percent unpopularity. We have also seen national polls which show him as unpopular as well. What does that say, what does that mean about the GOP’s chances in the fall?
STUART STEVENS: Well, I think that we shouldn’t talk about Donald Trump as a success. He’s running the worst campaign we have ever seen in modern history.
The reason he’s able to hijack news cycles is that he doesn’t care what he says and he doesn’t care about the ramifications about it. When you’re willing to do that, when you’re willing to sort of put on a suicide vest and pull the cord, you will get attention, but you will lose a general election.
He’s going to get killed in the general election, absolutely slaughtered, and it will be a disaster for the Republican Party.
GWEN IFILL: But, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Trump voters, we have seen, are loyal, and they are steadfast, even if they are presented with evidence that what he is saying is not true. So, is that the brand that we see at work?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What we see, I think, is a candidate who very artfully has capitalized on a large-scale sentiment in the American electorate that says that government doesn’t appear to be working well, politicians have promised and not delivered.
And here’s someone who comes outside the political establishment, outside any political background, and argues, I have a different kind of competence, a competence that will let us win again — that’s the first part of his brand — that is demonstrated by what I have already done as a businessman. I’m highly successful.
Second part of his brand, he has all these photo-ops in places that he’s built. And, third, I’m uncorrupt and uncorruptable. I’m financing myself.
Now, if you assume that everybody else who is seen by these voters in some ways to them politics as usual, then the Trump alternative looks like change, even if at times he’s inconsistent, even if at times he says outrageous things, even if those voters don’t actually believe he will do some of the things he says he will do.
We saw that in Peter Hart’s focus group, Annenberg Public Policy Center Voices of the Voters. Some of his own voters said, no, I don’t actually believe he’s going to build a wall or deport all those people. I like him anyway.
GWEN IFILL: McKay, I want to ask you about — I know you’re covering more than just the Republican side of this.
So, does Donald Trump’s ability to dominate the headlines, dominate the day, does that help or hurt the front-runner on the Democratic side? Does that hurt Bernie Sanders? Does it help Hillary Clinton?
MCKAY COPPINS: Well, I think Stuart is right that the way that Trump has managed to dominate media is by saying outlandish, provocative things that have made him actually, one poll recently showed, the most unpopular presidential candidate since David Duke ran for president.
So he is nationally very unpopular. But I do think that there is something to be said for the fact that so much attention and so much coverage has been focused on Donald Trump, on the Republican side of the race in general, but on Trump in particular, that it does have a fascinating dynamic that has played out in the Democratic side, where Hillary Clinton actually might face a lot of tough scrutiny in the general election that she hasn’t necessarily faced on a wide scale in the primary.
I still, though, think that Trump has done so much damage to his own brand, as you were just talking about, with the national electorate, that it’s going to be hard for him to fix that before November.
GWEN IFILL: Stu Stevens, why is it that when Mitt Romney came out, not once, not twice, maybe multiple times, and criticized Donald Trump, tough — using tough language, why didn’t that stick?
STUART STEVENS: Oh, I think it has stuck.
He did it in Ohio, and Trump lost Ohio. He did it in Utah and he lost in Utah. And I think that there is good indication here that this is beginning to sink in with Republican voters. The latest numbers showed him 10 points behind in Wisconsin to Ted Cruz, who probably is not going to be accused of being one of the great natural politicians of our day.
I think Republicans are probably taking a second look here. Look, on average, the polls show that Donald Trump is 17.5 points behind Bernie Sanders. You have to really think about that. Very quickly, you’re into a discussion not about holding the White House, not about holding the Senate, but about holding the House.
Hillary Clinton has 50 FBI agents looking into her, according to The Washington Post, and Donald Trump still is 10 points considered less honest than Hillary Clinton. That’s hard to do. We don’t have a lot of Hispanic Republicans, and 60 percent of the Hispanic Republicans don’t like Donald Trump.
So, this is a toxic candidacy, and I think that before Republicans embark on that, I think they’re beginning to take a look at what it would mean for the party. You’re seeing a lot of conservatives. Ben Sasse, a deeply conservative senator from Nebraska, said that he will not support him and he will look for an alternative.
So, I think that there is something happening here, and I hope that Republicans will go in a different direction.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you all very much.
For the record, “NewsHour” has requested an interview repeatedly with Mr. Trump. And we have yet to make that happen. They have yet to make that happen. We will keep trying.
McKay Coppins, senior political writer for BuzzFeed, Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the Annenberg School of Communications, and Stu Stevens, former Romney strategist, thank you all very much.
MCKAY COPPINS: Thank you.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: You’re welcome.
STUART STEVENS: Thank you.