Will the real Donald Trump please stand up?
That’s the question uncommitted voters in my focus groups and polls are asking. Is he the “authentic truth teller” who “isn’t beholden to the special interests,” and “will bring about the change America desperately needs?”
Or is he the Trump they’ve grown tired of and don’t trust to represent their country? The “rude, reckless, narcissist” who “acts more like a 12-year child than someone who can be trusted to be Commander-in-Chief,” who “makes it all about himself, when it should be about us”?
Welcome to the Bizzaro World that is Donald Trump’s campaign.
As always, those are America’s words, not mine. They come straight from a session for CBS News with 24 uncommitted voters in the suburbs of Philadelphia who are essential in making Pennsylvania flip from Democrat to Republican for the first time since 1988. This was supposed to be Trump’s poster child for a promised seismic shift in the electoral map. He promised the world that we would see his awesome electoral power and huge grassroots support manifest itself in this state.
So far, there hasn’t been a tremor. All across the country, Trump continues to slip and slide. In fact, if the election were held today, Clinton would receive 350 electoral votes—a genuine landslide.
But if these undecideds and the voters I have recently listened to in the critical states of Ohio and Florida are any indication, Trump can still win… as long as he can overcome his greatest enemy. No, it’s not Hillary Clinton. She’s actually the weakest and most beatable Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale in 1984. Trump’s greatest enemy is himself—and his own mouth. If he becomes truly disciplined in his communication, and if he learns that silence can often be his greatest ally, he can win this race.
The overarching mood of the American people is still squarely in Trump’s orbit. Nearly 70 percent believe the country is seriously off on the wrong track—and have felt that way for almost a decade. Even with the drop in unemployment, a majority still say “they are living paycheck-to-paycheck, struggling to get by.” And more than half the country believes their children and the next generation will have it worse than them. Despite the best efforts by the Democrats to promote a more favorable view of the status quo, the country is still squarely on the side of change.
But what undecided voters, disaffected Republicans and ex-Trump supporters don’t want—and will not support—is his penchant for insulting his way into the headlines. Low Energy Jeb, Little Marco and Lying Ted got him to where he is today: a billionaire in business and the nominee of the Republican Party, yet it won’t get him to the White House. The polls aren’t rigged. It is the candidate who is flawed.
Sure, the initial off-the-cuff, “Let Trump Be Trump” approach did its job. The debate-bomb-throwing, media-cycle-dominating, speech-on-a-sticky-note strategy cleared the field in an overcrowded Republican primary, and built him a large and loyal base of support. But that doesn’t work with independents, moderates, and those whose highest priority for the next president is “getting things done.” He doesn’t need to soften his stances or even his standard, stock stump speech. Instead, he needs to put a definitive end to the gaffes and the unforced errors. No more riffing. No more labeling. No more uber-personalized attacks. No more open admiration of dictators who mean America ill, just because they’re “strong.” These comments sour even his strongest supporters.
In all of our research over the past 30 days, the event that hurt him the most was his criticism of the Gold Star Kahn family—even among Republican-leaning voters who support him. The media covered the story extensively, and yet I believe they still underrepresented just how offensive his comments were to the American people. In my focus groups, people still get visibly angry and emotional about it. It was an unnecessary miscalculation, validating their concerns that deep down, maintaining his ego matters more to Trump than the America he says he wants to rebuild.
Conversely, in Hillary Clinton, Americans have come to believe that she simply cannot and/or will not tell the truth—on anything. Just a third of the electorate believes she has the honesty and integrity needed to be president—the weakest result for any frontrunner in modern times. Who can blame them? Week after week, month after month, from emails to family foundations, she’s questioned about her actions and either answers them poorly or refuses to answer at all. Our uncommitted voters use just two words to describe her—“liar” and “dishonest”—and that explains why she’s only five points up over her opponent.
The legendary American journalist Bob Woodward provided me a brilliant idea to ask the CBS focus group: “As you decide whom to support, would you rather see Trump’s unreleased tax returns, or Hillary Clinton’s unreleased State Department emails?” Almost unanimously they chose the Clinton emails. Trump’s tax returns are of personal interest, but Clinton’s emails are a matter of national interest. So instead of calling her Crooked Hillary, all Trump has to do is ask a simple question: “If she doesn’t trust you with the truth, how can you trust her with your country?”
There are only 75 days left, and the voters who care more about candidate character and getting things done are increasingly angry that they have to choose between—in their words—the candidate says stupid things (Trump) or the candidate who does criminal things (Clinton). For the candidate who doesn’t know the laws, or thinks she is above the laws?
The fact is, the majority of Americans still want to vote for change, which means voting against Hillary Clinton. They’re just increasingly sure that they don’t want to vote for Donald Trump. They are desperate for their voice to be heard in Washington, but they’re not convinced that either candidate is listening. They know Clinton has a plan, but they don’t trust its author. They want Trump to have a plan, yet they don’t see it or hear it. As a former and perhaps future Trump voter in the CBS focus group told me, “Trump needs to conduct his campaign with respect, like the job interview that it’s meant to be.”
Americans don’t want a bully behind the bully pulpit; they want a president in the Oval Office.