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Measuring the ‘Trump effect’ on the 2016 presidential race

With one of the most contentious and unusual primary seasons in history winding down, presumptive nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are gearing up for what promises to be an equally volatile general election. Gwen Ifill talks to senior Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett, Beth Reinhard of The Wall Street Journal and Ann Selzer of Selzer & Company for more on what to expect this fall.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    No matter which side you are on, the 2016 campaign is already on the books as one of the most unusual in modern history. Just this week, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and President Obama have offered a preview of what's to come, with attacks, counterattacks, and harsh disagreement over policy, both foreign and domestic.

    From guns, to refugees, to immigration, it has turned into a campaign like no other. Call it the Trump effect.

    Joining us to explain the hows and whys, Trump senior campaign adviser Barry Bennett, Wall Street Journal political reporter Beth Reinhard, and pollster J. Ann Selzer.

    Ann Selzer, you just completed a poll with Bloomberg Politics that was released yesterday. Tell me, is there anything in there to support my notion that there is a Trump effect this year?

    ANN SELZER, Selzer & Company: Well, there are a couple of things in there, Gwen.

    First of all, what we see happening right now is a 12-point lead for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, 49 to 37. That's a substantial lead, and polls recently have been showing this a tighter race than that. So the Trump effect for right now, overall, doesn't appear to be a winning position.

    But, secondly, you asked about whether this is a race like no other, and pollsters have been going through their archives trying to find some little piece of data to shine a light on that. And I found one today. If you look at the proportion of Republicans who have unfavorable feelings toward Donald Trump, it's 27 percent.

    And you might think, well, this is just a year that everybody hates everybody. The number is 15 percent for Hillary Clinton. That's looking just at Democratic voters. But I went back to our archives to see, four years ago, what was the situation with Mitt Romney, because maybe you think Republicans always have — there is a substantial group that are unhappy with their nominee. It was 11 percent.

    So Donald Trump, even within the confines of his own party, is turning off a substantial number of people there, and that's a Trump effect, too.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Barry Bennett, he's also turning on a substantial amount of people. How do you measure that? How do you weigh that against each other?

  • BARRY BENNETT, Senior Adviser, Trump Campaign:

    Well, I think, typically, a candidate comes to a race and he comes within the four out of four voters and the three out of four voters, and you fight the campaign over the two out of four voters.

    It's kind of the inverse this cycle. Right? He comes with a bunch of the folks who are not traditional voters, not traditional Republican voters. In fact, in Youngstown, Ohio, for instance, in January, there were 16,000 registered Republicans. Today, that number is 38,000. It's a huge shift. Now, these three out of fours…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In an important state.

  • BARRY BENNETT:

    In a very important state.

    These three-fours and four-fours, which supported somebody else in the primary, they will come home. It will take some time, but they will come home.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You have covered more — you have been to this rodeo before, Beth, so as you compare this to previous campaigns, what to you is the most significant difference?

  • BETH REINHARD, The Wall Street Journal:

    There is very little that's familiar about this race. Donald Trump has not just rewritten the rule book, but taken the old one, burnt it, thrown it in the ocean.

    Everything about how he runs his campaign and how he conducts himself is unlike anything we have ever seen before. The way he interacts with the media is…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Or not.

  • BETH REINHARD:

    Or not. In that case, disqualifying reporters from covering him based on stories he doesn't like, we haven't seen that before.

    The way he calls in to so many of the television networks and really is just running his own media operation on television and on Twitter is unlike anything we have seen before.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Ann, we know that Americans still think largely the country is on the wrong track. Is that also a number, which we watch very carefully every four years, is that something which could also maybe speak to the kind of effect that Donald Trump is having, something that he can take advantage of?

  • ANN SELZER:

    Well, our poll is showing that the percent of people showing that the nation is headed off in the wrong direction has reached one of its highest points since we started polling in 2009.

    So there's a lot of discomfort at the national level. That's usually a reflection on the view of the president. And, actually, Barack Obama's numbers were not so terrible in our poll. So there sort of is this breaking apart of the things that we used to think hung together and gave you a pretty clear view of the way the nation was heading.

    Not so anymore.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Barry Bennett, there are all these contradictions. The perfect example today is Donald Trump says that he's going to speak to the NRA about changing the no-fly lists for gun purchases, or who can purchase guns, which is something the NRA objects to.

    He has also said he supports the LGBT community in the wake of Orlando, but not that he supports gay marriage. Is it — is that Americans can hold two opposing thoughts in their heads at one time?

  • BARRY BENNETT:

    Well, I think often in politics we come up with this monolithic view of things. And this cycle is a perfect example of where none of that is really true. Right?

    There's no such thing as the average Hispanic voter, right? They're all over the place. Some are faith-based. Some are small business-based. Some are family-based. Some are just young progressives.

    So we're challenging all the norms that we have seen in campaigns. But I think that the tone of the country, the 45 percent of the folks think we're going in the wrong direction, which is an all-time record. They have also figured out they don't necessarily have to like or love the candidate for president, which we have always believed to be true.

    They want to someone who will go to Washington literally with a bulldozer's license and just fix things. And that's, I think, what we're seeing.

    I mean, otherwise, how could Donald Trump's approval rating, according to Ann's poll, be at 29 percent and his ballot be in the 40s? It's not possible during traditional political metrics. Right?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, there are no traditional political metrics which apply, I think we can all agree.

    Let me ask you, Beth, about this, though. We have — it feels like we have just lurched into the general election campaign. Maybe Bernie Sanders is still in the race, but it doesn't feel like that's what's driving this anymore.

    so, how different is — are primary races, aside from 17 people on the Republican ticket — how different are they from general election races, and does it matter in a nontraditional year like this?

  • BETH REINHARD:

    Donald Trump, people keep saying he's going to — quote, unquote — "pivot" to the general election. And we have all been sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for that to happen, and it really hasn't.

    In fact, he still talks about rivals that fell away months ago, as if he's still reliving those conquests. And, of course, he has talked quite a bit about Hillary as well. But it does still have the feel of a primary, in that the rhetoric is just as fury and just as harsh as you see in a primary, where people are trying to appeal to that fire-breathing base.

    He hasn't really moderated his tone, which is what people expect once you become the nominee, that you're going to try to reach this wider audience with, you know, more warmer tones. Donald Trump is hitting it as hard as ever.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Ann Selzer, that reminds me, yesterday, the president came as close to fire-breathing as I guess he ever gets, in his pretty full-throated, without mentioning his name, attack on Donald Trump, the things that Donald Trump stands for.

    At the same time, am I right, his approval rating seems to be creeping up?

  • ANN SELZER:

    Yes, his approval rating is creeping up. His favorability numbers are creeping up. He's about on a par with Bill Clinton, who has usually surpassed him a little bit there.

    I think, however, there are things that are still bothering the general electorate as they look at Donald Trump. We tested a few items, and half say they're bothered a lot by Trump's ban on Muslim immigrants, 55 percent bothered a lot about comments he made about the judge ruling in the Trump University case, and 62 percent bothered a lot about his tone with women, 62 percent. That's bothered a lot. That's the strongest answer they could give us. And it's 71 percent among women.

    So, the one last thing I want to share with you is that we know he can change things if he wants to. When we first were polling on Donald Trump here in Iowa a year ago, his favorable-to-unfavorable ratio was 2-to-1 unfavorable. And within the course of a few months, he flipped it to where it was 2-to-1 favorable to unfavorable. So, he's done magic before.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, let me ask Barry Bennett, doing magic, how does he flip those numbers?

  • BARRY BENNETT:

    Well, I think when people hear his policy positions, you could either believe what Hillary Clinton says about his policies or you can listen to him, that they will come to appreciate where he is.

    You know, government is not working. We know precious little — for instance, this idea of radical Islamism, we know precious little about what causes people to radicalize. We have been dealing with this for a number of years now.

    You would think that we would have a better understanding, we would have a better screening, have a better watching and calculation. But all of our processes that the government has put in place have not worked.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Do you think he's been specific enough about what the alternative to that is?

  • BARRY BENNETT:

    Well, you can never be specific enough. Right? That's what campaigns are about.

    But, I mean, that's why we have 150-some days to talk about it. But that's what we're going to talk about in the campaign. But there are just so many people in America who are suffering real pain. And the current policies of this administration and even some of the policies from the previous administration just never helped them. And that's what we're going to talk about.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Barry Bennett, senior Trump campaign adviser, Beth Reinhard, political reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and Ann Selzer, the redoubtable Ann Selzer of the Bloomberg poll, thank you all very much.

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