Luntz: For first time ever, undecideds in debate focus group decided not to vote at all

Consider Frank Luntz flabbergasted. The experienced focus-group handler collected a number of undecided voters for the presidential debate, as he has in several cycles, in order to test the initial movement the event creates. Usually Luntz gets a sense that undecideds have moved toward one candidate or another, and those results are a fairly good test of instant reaction … if not lasting impact.

This time, however, the movement was less towards a candidate, and more toward the door:

Out of 15 undecided voters in a virtual focus group conducted by veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz, four said they were supporting Democratic nominee Joe Biden after watching the debate and two backed President Donald Trump. The rest remained on the fence. There were nine men and six women and they hailed from Arizona, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Nevada.

“You just saw 90 minutes. How can you still be undecided?” an incredulous Luntz asked. “Please explain that to me?” …

The majority of the focus group remained undecided after the lengthy, chaotic debate. Many put a greater onus on Biden to deliver strong answers than Trump — excusing the president’s behavior as “typical” or just Trump being Trump.

It wasn’t just that they remained undecided. Luntz reported last night that they had actually made a decision to not vote at all:

Maybe we’ve never seen a debate like this before? Actually, that’s not really true; this debate seems like a fairly clear replay of the Trump-Hillary Clinton debates four years ago. People largely had the same reaction to those as well. Plus, last Trump’s strategy in night’s debate — to the extent he had a strategy other than just being himself —  had echoes of an earlier national debate, as Jim Geraghty noticed:

Maybe that helped depress turnout in 2012, too, but probably not. Voters don’t tend to make decisions based on running mates or their debates, and they don’t make too many of their decisions based on game-show debates either.

However, it’s entirely possible that last night’s debate will have plenty of voters throwing in the towel after watching the two candidates take bitter and personal shots at each other. If so, that’s a real problem for Joe Biden, much more so than with Donald Trump. Biden leads in most polling, but lags significantly in enthusiasm. Any decrease in turnout would impact the less enthusiastic voters whom Biden will need to turn out in force to perform up to the levels shown in polling.

Add that to another problem that polls won’t measure accurately — the impact of the ground-game imbalance. Trump and the RNC are pulling out all of the stops, at least mechanically, to support a successful GOTV effort. Biden and the DNC aren’t doing any of that, which means that Trump’s edge on enthusiasm is even more potent. Any decrease in turnout increases the odds of another 2016 outcome, where Trump wins close races not because he added a lot of votes but because voters didn’t turn out for his opponent. With those disadvantages, Biden needed something more than a default debating-society win on points — he needed to fire people up. Luntz’ group suggests he failed on that score last night, just as Biden and his campaign have failed on that score until now.

By the way, there were other indicators of more enthusiasm in post-debate analysis. Telemundo’s snap polling on social media produced a surprising result:

Telemundo’s hosts are correct to note that this isn’t scientific; neither is Luntz’ approach. Both are ad hoc, self-selecting samples. However, if the result from Telemundo reflects Team Trump organizing more than a representative result, it’s still pretty impressive. Keep that in mind when it comes to GOTV.


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Ed Morrissey 10:01 AM on December 06, 2022