ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Webcast Extra.
MS. IFILL: Hello. I’m Gwen Ifill. And welcome. We had so much to talk about on the regular broadcast that we just had to stick around a little longer. Joining me, Molly Ball of The Atlantic, who wants to know what she’s going to be talking about but I won’t let her know – (laughter) – Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Jackie Calmes of The New York Times, and Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine.
First, to Michael, and the story behind the story, that “Meltdown” cover that you had on TIME Magazine this week. How do you decide things like that? That’s such an eye-grabber and so, I don’t know, opinionated? (Laughs.)
MR. SCHERER: Well, look, we did a cover in August called – the cover line was “Deal With It.” It was right when his rise came right after the Iowa State Fair, which had sort of wowed everybody in Iowa and established him. I think we hit that at the right moment in –
MS. IFILL: Was that the eagle one?
MR. SCHERER: Yeah, that was it. We had a photo of him with an eagle inside. We did a – we did a cover the second week of January, and the cover line was “How He Won.” It was a little presumptuous of us because no one had cast a ballot, but the idea of the story was he had so dominated the conversation that he may not win all the ballots, but he’d won the season. And so I think what we’re doing here is marking the moment. I mean, it’s in the same spirit of those two covers that, you know, you could say it’s opinionated, but I think it’s – I mean, there’s some subjectivity in using the word “meltdown.”
MS. IFILL: Yeah. (Laughs.)
MR. SCHERER: But the fact that there has been a precipitous, worrying fall, sort of collapse –
MS. IFILL: Is pretty universally agreed upon – for now.
MR. SCHERER: And is – you can see it in data. I mean, it’s not – like, we’re not – I’m not implying that; it is real.
MS. IFILL: And he has usually loved – he has usually in the past loved his TIME Magazine covers. Any comment so far on this one?
MR. SCHERER: We have not heard from him.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, I guess not.
OK, I promised at the end of the regular program we were going to talk about the debate over debates, which happens every four years. That’s part of the conventional part. The unconventional part, Dan Balz, is that it’s going to involve master negotiator Dan – you’re Dan Balz – (laughter) – master negotiator Donald Trump.
MS. CALMES: (Laughs.) Sort of master negotiator.
MR. BALZ: Write that down. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: So, how is it going to be different?
MR. BALZ: I don’t know. I think he will – he will play with the topic for a while, and it could end up that he’ll, one way or another, concede – not defeat, but he’ll concede and he’ll show up for the three debates, and –
MS. IFILL: He’s said a couple places he’s definitely going to do the three debates, that he thinks he’s good at them.
MR. BALZ: You know, he’ll argue over format. He’ll have ideas on moderators. But –
MS. IFILL: See how I kept my face just like that when you said that? (Laughter.)
MR. BALZ: He doesn’t – he doesn’t have – he doesn’t have a lot of chips to play. The formats were set by the Commission. The dates were set by the Commission. He’s talked about, oh, the conflicts with Sunday night football, one of the debates. Well, you know, if you try to – if you try to put the calendar together for debates in a season when you have professional football, Major League Baseball playoffs –
MS. IFILL: Religious holidays.
MR. BALZ: – religious holidays, and I’m told – I was told that you can’t do a debate on the same night twice because networks don’t want to give up the same night twice.
MR. SCHERER: Lose their shows.
MS. CALMES: Oh, the same show – same shows.
MR. BALZ: So, you add that together, you know, draw the calendar.
MR. SCHERER: Isn’t it so different this time? Before his argument was always, I give you ratings, it’s all about ad dollars, that’s where I have the negotiating power. Presidential debates in a general election don’t have ads in the same way. They’re broadcast –
MS. IFILL: Because they’re broadcast across every single network.
MR. SCHERER: So he doesn’t have the same leverage he had with CNN last time, or something, when he was trying to do this –
MS. CALMES: Right, and presidential debates have had good ratings even long before Donald Trump.
MS. BALL: Well, and if things continue as they’ve been going, if this slump continues for Trump, he’s going to need some real or perceived opportunity to turn things around, which the debates will presumably present. We saw him back in Iowa experiment with counter-programming the debates, right? Boycotting the debates, staging his own event instead. And that did not work out well for him. That was one of the few times that his poll numbers actually slipped in the run-up to the primaries.
MR. BALZ: I think the danger is the debates become too important for him; you know, I mean, that there is so much put on those debates that he almost can’t quite meet the standard that people will say he has to meet.
MS. IFILL: Which is why Hillary Clinton is already saying I am going to do these debates no matter what, see you there, guy. I want to ask you, Molly, about – we don’t talk enough about voters and what they think, but you spent some time with some Walmart moms at a focus group this week. First of all, who are “Walmart moms,” and what did you learn?
MS. BALL: Yeah, I mean, we should disclose these are sponsored by Walmart. They pay for the focus groups. So it’s not like our term for this catchy, you know, new demographic. But I’ve been following these focus groups for several years. They’re groups of swing voters, so voters who have not decided whom to vote for. They are women who have children under 18 in the home and shop at Walmart on a regular basis, and they end up being a very good cross-section of sort of regular American women. And these ones were conducted in Columbus, Ohio and Phoenix, Arizona.
And the interesting thing is, when you select for people who are not – who haven’t decided who to vote for, a lot of the times the people who get screened into the focus group are just people who aren’t really paying attention, that’s why they haven’t decided. These were people – the difference in this campaign cycle is the people who are undecided are high-information voters. They know a lot about these candidates; they just hate them both. (Laughter.) And that was almost universally the case with all of these women, was that they were so distressed. They felt so torn by the choice between two candidates that they found almost equally unpalatable. Some were leaning one way or the other.
The other thing that was very interesting, so there was a lot of desire to vote for a third-party candidate. Who knows if that dissipates by the time it gets to November, but at this point there are a lot of these women saying they do not want to vote for either of the major-party candidates. A lot of ticket-splitting. A lot of these women saying that they do not – both focus groups were asked, do you think that Donald Trump is a regular Republican, and they all said no; he’s a completely different phenomenon, didn’t affect their opinion of the Republican Party – heartwarming to a lot of Republican strategists. And a lot of them who had ruled out voting for Donald Trump were nonetheless willing to vote for, in both cases, an incumbent Republican senator in both of those states – Rob Portman in Ohio, John McCain in Arizona. So ticket-splitting, which we thought that we’d written the obituary for in American politics.
MS. IFILL: It took Donald Trump to bring it back.
MS. BALL: May be back. It took Donald Trump to bring it back this year.
MS. IFILL: And under the radar I want to ask you, Jackie, one of the things that we have seen both of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton agree on is that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the big trade deal, shouldn’t happen – except that there’s some suspicion, as you said in the regular show, about whether Hillary Clinton really means it and will change her mind. Well, she obviously disagrees with the current, incumbent president on this, but he’s just moving right ahead, isn’t he?
MS. CALMES: Yeah, right. And he considers it a potentially legacy-making achievement if he were to get it. Now, that’s looking less and less and less likely. But today, the day after she made her definitive statement yesterday about I was opposed to it as a candidate, you know, I’ll oppose it after the election, and I’ll oppose it as president, he sent Congress a letter, required by law, to serve notice that he’s going to be sending up what they call implementing legislation. And if there is to be any hope of a vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the lame-duck session, as many people have long suspected that the Republican leadership will engineer in cahoots with the White House, if that’s going to happen, there are things that have to be done starting about Labor Day, and the president sending his letter to the Hill today was part of that. Now, I think the president would just as soon keep quiet on TPP for Hillary Clinton’s sake between now and November, but he was caught. He had to take a step because of this process that has to happen if there is going to be a vote before the end of the year.
MS. IFILL: OK. And we’ll be watching all the sneaky things that happen, as well as the overt things. Thank you, everybody.
Stay online all week long for the latest developments on these and other stories from the best reporters in Washington, our panelists. That’s, of course, at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And we’ll see you next time on the Washington Week Webcast Extra.