Focus group reflects nation's dark mood ahead of Election Day

In two days, American voters will send a president to the White House, but both the leading candidates have the highest disapproval ratings in U.S. history

The following script is from “The National Mood,” which aired on Nov. 6, 2016. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. L. Franklin Devine, Maria Gavrilovic, Michael Karzis and Graham Messick, producers.

In two days, Americans will go to the polls and hopefully bring down the curtain on a contentious presidential campaign that’s been going on now for a year-and-a-half. It is no secret that most Americans are angry and disappointed with the process and the choices that they have been offered. That was confirmed last week in a CBS News/New York Times poll that found 82 percent of likely voters more disgusted than excited about the election.

We asked Republican pollster, public opinion analyst and CBS News consultant Frank Luntz if he could put faces and voices to this dark national mood by scientifically selecting a focus group that would reflect those polling results. And he did.

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Frank Luntz and the focus group he assembled of carefully selected voters.

CBS News

Some members leaned towards Trump. Some leaned towards Clinton.  Some were uncommitted and most of them had an unfavorable opinion of both presidential candidates.

On Thursday night, Frank Luntz began assembling a small group of carefully selected voters. He has spent decades doing market research, sampling public opinion and developing the right phrases and approaches to reshape it. And he has used the raw data from these focus groups to develop strategies for Republican candidates, corporations in crisis and celebrities in need of image makeovers. He is at the top of his field and a familiar face in boardrooms and newsrooms.

Frank Luntz: So let’s do a vote, let’s do a vote, how many of you are voting for your candidate? Raise your hands. Three. How many of you are voting against a candidate? Everybody else.

Luntz has conducted hundreds of these focus groups during the campaign with registered voters all over the country. And everywhere he’s been, he’s heard pretty much the same thing.

Frank Luntz: I want you to describe how you feel about this political process with the election only hours away. I want you to give me a word or phrase.

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CBS News consultant Frank Luntz

CBS News

Male Voice: Not substantive.

Female Voice: Terrified.

Male Voice: Too long.

Female Voice #3: Terrified.

Male Voice #2: It’s rigged.

Male Voice #3: Exasperating.

Female Voice #2: Circus.

Male Voice #2: Disturbed.

Female Voice #3: Horrifying.

Male Voice #3: Disheartened.

Male Voice #3: Annoyed.

Male Voice: Disgusted.

Frank Luntz: This is horrible.

Steve Kroft: Who are these people that we saw?

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Focus group

CBS News

Frank Luntz: These are 23 people representing all aspects of the political spectrum, all aspects of economic life, all age groups. I was looking for people that could have a legitimate conversation about these presidential campaigns and not just totally smear this candidate or this candidate. And here is my problem.

Steve Kroft: They smeared both candidates?

Frank Luntz: They smeared both candidates. We began with Trump.

Frank Luntz: A word or phrase to describe Donald Trump?

Male Voice: Unworthy.

Female Voice: Immature.

Male Voice: Racist.

Male Voice: There’s no words to describe him.

Female Voice: Nightmare.

Female Voice: The kinda pig that every woman has always had to deal with. That a**hole.

Frank Luntz: And I thought, “Oh my God. I recruited only pro-Hillary or mod-- or-- neutral towards Hillary.” And then we moved to the Clinton conversation, and it was just as bad.

“Because the Republicans are mad at Trump, and the Democrats are mad at Clinton. And the Bernie Sanders people are mad at everybody. When has that ever happened?” Frank Luntz

Frank Luntz: Gimme a word or phrase to describe Hillary Clinton?

Male Voice: Corrupt.

Male Voice: Entitled liar.

Male Voice: Train wreck.

Male Voice: Scandalous.

Female Voice: Dishonest.

Steve Kroft: One of the things that struck me is that I knew that there were Republicans, and I knew there were Democrats, and I knew that there were people that-- were undecided. But I really couldn’t tell who was who.

Frank Luntz: Because the Republicans are mad at Trump, and the Democrats are mad at Clinton. And the Bernie Sanders people are mad at everybody. When has that ever happened?

Frank Luntz traces the toxic political atmosphere back to the 2000 presidential election.  Al Gore won the popular vote, but after six weeks and a Supreme Court decision -- George W. Bush became president.

Frank Luntz: And in that six weeks, we came from being Democrats and Republicans to being outraged, to believing that the other side is trying to steal the election. And when the election was over, there was no coming together. There was no honeymoon. And from that point on, the goal has been to delegitimize. Not to respect and-- and at least to listen to, but to delegitimize the opposition. And now today in 2016, hours from now, it will be tens of millions of people who will believe that the loser should have won, that the election was rigged, and that the winner is illegitimate.

Frank Luntz: Tell me something positive about this campaign season.

Female Voice: Something positive about this campaign season. Wow. I would say-- dang it.

Frank Luntz: You can’t come up with anything?

Female Voice: It’s hard to say something positive when you have people who are mad as hell. It’s very hard to find positivity when people are pissed.

But Luntz was much less concerned about the negativity than he was about the tenor of the discussion. There was a deep unfocused anger that crossed political, racial and economic boundaries. Something he says is much more dangerous.

Frank Luntz: How did we get to this point where everyone of you with different backgrounds, different politics, different objectives, all of you gave me a negative reaction?  How did we get here? One at a time no more talking over each other.

“My biggest fear is that these candidates aren’t a mistake. That the American people have elected the future of America, what we aspire to be and what we are deep down inside.”

Female Voice: Bernie was cheated out of the election, that’s how.

Male Voice: He was not cheated out of the election.

Female Voice: He was cheated. He was cheated.

Frank Luntz: How did we get here?

Male Voice: It’s our fault. You saw it here, everybody’s arguing. I’m afraid to even bring up a point. I’m not pro-Trump, but I see why people like it. And you know, if I say that, I’m gonna be, you know, ostracized.

Male Voice: My biggest fear is that these candidates aren’t a mistake. That the American people have elected the future of America, what we aspire to be and what we are deep down inside. I think Trump has gotten so much traction at this point because deep down inside there are a lot of Americans that feel the exact same way as him--

Male Voice: Deep down our country is divided, I’m sorry. We are not united. We are at each other’s throats. And I’m sorry. Maybe this is what it is. Maybe these are the candidates that we want.

Frank Luntz: I want to listen to them. I want to ask them questions, and then sit back, and let it all roll over me. And the problem is people become so angry. And they become so vicious.

Steve Kroft: This is new? You’ve been doing this a long time.

Frank Luntz: It’s never been like this. Look, I did this for you 18 years ago. We were talking about the impeachment of a president, and each person spoke their turn. No one talked over each other. Nobody yelled at each other.

Male Voice: Black people are actually killing more black people than --  

Frank Luntz: Today, there’s none of that.

Male Voice: So if they disagree with you, their opinion shouldn’t matter. But you say people who don’t support Donald Trump shouldn’t talk so much.

Frank Luntz: It took two minutes for them to explode. It took five minutes to actually get to the point where I lost control.

Male Voice: And guess what happened with Clinton.

Frank Luntz: Stop, stop, stop.

Steve Kroft: One way to look at this is, OK, people are upset. And they’re just blowing off steam.

“We don’t know how to listen to each other. You know, we go on Facebook all day and we just blast out messages into the ether. But we don’t actually take time to see what comes back.”

Frank Luntz: That was not blowing off steam. That got way too personal. They got way too strong with each other. And this is now my craft. This is what I’ve done for over two decades. That’s not blowing off steam. That is a deep-seated resentment.

Frank Luntz: Is this America? Are you – look around. Are you America? Yes or no?

Voices: Yes. 

Male Voice: You know, we don’t-- we don’t know how to listen to each other—

Male Voice: Nobody will listen to any—

Male Voice: Can I say one thing? We don’t know how to listen to each other. You know, we go on Facebook all day and we just blast out messages into the ether. But we don’t actually take time to see what comes back.

Male Voice: Look at how social media is. I mean, there’s so much ugly stuff that we say to each other on social media where we attack each other, you know, we attack each other’s views, we attack each other’s, you know, heritage.

Steve Kroft: What’s happened in American culture? Why is there this lack of civility? Some people talked ab-- a lot of people mentioned social media.

Frank Luntz: It’s-- it is social media. But the first question is: Are you going to edit this? Or are you going to play the words they actually used? There were people in that focus group who used language that if my mom was still alive and I said it, she would literally cut me out of the will. There’s no self-censoring. So we now say exactly what we feel. And, goddamn it, you’re gonna listen to me. And that’s really what it is right now. You’re gonna listen to me. I’m not gonna learn from you. You’re gonna listen to me.

But the panel’s dissatisfaction was not just with social media…it was with all media…which they see as an enabler and part of the electoral process that delivered the two unpopular presidential candidates to their doorstep.

Frank Luntz: They’ve now dismissed all of you for your biases, for your focus on entertainment, for this battle for ratings and profitability rather than information and knowledge. And they simply now collect information to affirm themselves rather than to inform themselves. But when we don’t even agree on the same facts, then how can we possibly agree on the same solutions?

At one point in the focus group, Frank Luntz asked the participants to pick up devices he’d provided in order to track their collective responses to a series of news clips and campaign ads.

Frank Luntz: You’re going to start at zero. The more you want to vote for them, the higher you turn your dial, the less you want to vote for them, the lower you turn your dial. I want you to react second-by-second to every word, every phrase. Is that clear?

An overlay on the screen tracked their instantaneous responses by political affiliation. Republicans in red. Democrats in green. When you see the lines go down, they don’t like what they’re hearing.  

Donald Trump: I moved on her like a b**h. But I couldn’t get there. And she was married. Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony t*ts and everything. She’s totally changed her look.

Billy Bush: Sheesh, your girl’s hot as sh*t. In the purple.

Donald Trump: Whoa! Whoa!

Billy Bush: Yes! The Donald has scored.

Male Voice: Based on those ads, based on those clips, you can’t. I mean, I can’t consciously and morally vote for Trump. I just can’t.

Frank Luntz: How can you?

Male Voice: Because Hillary’s worse. It’s that simple. It’s that simple.

Hillary Clinton: All I can tell you is in retrospect, if I used a government account
and I had said, you know let’s release everything. Let’s let everybody in America see what I
did for four years – we would have the same arguments. So that’s all I can say.

Interviewer: But did you try to wipe the whole server? You didn’t even answer the question.

Hillary Clinton: I – I mean – I don’t – I mean I have no idea. That’s why we turned it over –

Interviewer: You said you were in charge of it. You were the official in charge of it. Did you wipe the server?

Hillary Clinton: What, like with a cloth or something? No.

Frank Luntz: That was one of the lowest dialed moments that I have done in this entire campaign. Why was that so bad?

Female Voice: She was laughing. She-- she was, like, making fun of it. She thought it was like a joke. She didn’t take it seriously.

Frank Luntz: I feel like I’m a child of a divorce. These two candidates, the way they fight, the way they yell at each other, the way they make it personal, it’s like having your parents get divorced, and you don’t want to live with either of them. And the judge sits there and says, “Pick one or the other.” And you say, “How about the jury? Can I-- can I go there?” It’s awful.

But Luntz worries that voter disillusionment runs much deeper than Trump and Clinton.

Frank Luntz: How many of you would say that you’re mad as hell. Raise your hands. It’s just about everybody here. So what are you mad at?

Male Voice: I’m mad at the corruption, the money in politics, how they appease these big investors, it’s just—

Frank Luntz: What are you mad at?

Male Voice #2: Taxes. We’re paying through the nose.

Female Voice: We’re spending money in the wrong places. We should cut funding to the military and spend it on social programs.

Frank Luntz: What are you mad at?

Male voice: We’re not taking care of our own. Veterans, people going hungry and we’re all a nation of immigrants, but people are just walking in and getting social services, not contributing to the tax base.

Female Voice #3: They do pay taxes.

Male Voice #2: It’s an abomination.

Steve Kroft: You think they feel betrayed. By whom?  

Frank Luntz: They were betrayed by politicians who didn’t keep their promises. They were betrayed by CEOs who left them behind, who shipped jobs overseas, didn’t give them the benefits that they thought they were going to get. They were betrayed by Social Security, which they don’t believe will exist when they retire. They were betrayed by things in their day-to-day life.

Frank Luntz: It’s election night and I’m the losing candidate. What do you want me to say?

Female Voice: “I accept the results.” And to walk away and help the country move forward in the right direction.

Frank Luntz: You lean towards Trump. You’ve said so many times.

Male Voice: Yes, sir.

Frank Luntz: Do you want Trump to say that the system isn’t rigged?

Male Voice: I want him - that’s correct. It’s not rigged. These are the results. Get behind the new person in charge.

Frank Luntz: What do you want the loser to say to the winner on Election Night?

Male Voice: “I know this has been a long campaign. But at the end of the day, these are the results. And we’ve thrown a lot of mud over the last year and some change. But it’s time for us to move on and become better and learn from this process.”

Frank Luntz: There is still the thinnest of threads that bind us together and the willingness, in certain situations, to listen and learn. But we’re one thread away from everything being cut. And that’s why Election Night is everything. I want to know what those two candidates are going to say. Please. Your words have power. Find words that unite. Find words that unify. Because if you don’t, the consequences on the 9th, on the day after, will be horrific.

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    Few journalists have achieved the impact and recognition that Steve Kroft's 60 Minutes work has generated for over two decades. Kroft delivered his first report for 60 Minutes in 1989.