WASHINGTON — Through a one-way mirror last Friday night, I watched 30 undecided voters discuss Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and realized the depth of dislike they had for both.
I was observing a focus group in Alexandria, a suburb in the battleground state of Virginia, just a few miles from the White House.
Friday wrapped up a hectic campaign week. Clinton got in a jam for not revealing her pneumonia. A few hours before this gathering, Trump, who rode birtherism to the GOP presidential nomination, finally admitted President Barack Obama was born in the U.S.
The group watched ads for Clinton and Trump and clips from the candidates’ speeches. They twisted dials up or down to show if they found the messages to their liking.
After three hours, the verdict was in.
“You can see right now, the public hates both of them,” said Frank Luntz, the political consultant and news analyst who moderated the session, sponsored by AARP.
The folks in the focus group were a mix of ages, genders and ethnicities, divided between Democrats, Republicans and Independents. They told Luntz they found Trump and Clinton — well, loathsome.
Asked to describe the rivals, they said Clinton is “untrustworthy,” and a “liar” while Trump is a “phony” and “bigoted.”
Their reaction to one particular Clinton ad surprised me.
The spot was about how Trump is a rotten role model for children. It’s been getting a lot of paid play and digital views.
The ad shows little kids watching TV’s as controversial Trump’s sound bites roll: mocking a disabled reporter; saying how a female reporter had “ blood coming out of her eyes”; and bragging that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and voters would still back him.
The focus group burst out laughing. The ad did not pass the authenticity test.
What tested well for Clinton was an ad showing her measured testimony during the House Benghazi hearing. That got one of the highest scores.
“If this election is defined by whether you like or dislike Hillary Clinton, she loses,” Luntz said. “If the election is defined about what you think of Donald Trump, he loses.”
Near the end of the session, Luntz invited the reporters who were observing to ask the participants questions.
I wanted to know more about why Trump is immune to fact-checking by journalists who, based on research, marshal an army of facts to back conclusions that many things Trump says are not true. Politifact found 51 percent of Clinton’s statements are true or mostly true compared with only 15 percent of Trump’s statements.
The answers were revealing. These voters do not trust the journalist umpires.
“Respectfully, the public has heard for 30 years that the media, not all the media, but from a significant portion of you, that every single Republican who has run is the dumbest, least honest, most racist whatever that has ever run for office,” a woman replied.
She continued, “. . . So when an actual stupid crazy dishonest racist showed up, no one believed you.”
A man said, “It’s kind of up to your discretion what you are fact-checking and what you are not. And also, Clinton has a responsibility to be honest because she was an elected official, where Trump is just the head of his organization.”
Another woman said Clinton “wants it so much she will say anything, she will do anything. The people behind her will say anything or do anything.”
The last two comments demonstrated quite a double standard when it comes to Clinton. I get that Clinton — especially with her private email server woes — is branded a liar. Trump is getting away without being held to any standard of truthfulness.
I asked Luntz about this.
Said Luntz: “They expect it from him and they don’t believe that he can control it. This should really depress you.”Tweets by @lynnsweet