Harvard Political Review: What did you make of the debate last night?
Patrick Ruffini: It did a good job of showcasing both of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. During the first fifteen minutes of the debate, I thought that Trump was set up to potentially come out as the big winner – he was extremely aggressive on offense, and he countered every single one of Clinton’s economic points pivoting back to trade, one of his signature issues, that he talked about incessantly for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the debate. The minute that the debate shifted back to Trump himself, his personal dealings, specifically his tax returns, he was much more flat-footed and on defense throughout the rest of the debate and he couldn’t seem to handle those questions as well as he could just simply talking about two or three of his signature issues. And I think ultimately the debate became more about Trump than about him pivoting back to a change argument, which I think is one that he could have easily won on. And Clinton gained strength throughout the rest of the debate, in that I think she learned how to counterpunch effectively. I think her attack on Trump on the tax return issue was a turning point in the debate, where he started to stumble and he felt the need to double down and defend himself at every turn. Frankly, maybe we’re seeing there’s not very much to defend on some of these questions. And so the better move from him in that environment is to try and pivot away from it. I mean, at some point, he could’ve said, “Look, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about these things I’ve said,” or “these personal issues, but let me tell you,” look into the camera, “I feel this election is about you, the voter; it’s about declining wages for the middle class.” Kind of trying to pivot back to his working class appeal, which is fairly unique for a Republican, but he did not effectively do that. He just felt compelled to wallow and double down in a lot of these criticisms, and I think that it sort of provides a guidepost for the next couple debates.
HPR: You’re obviously a big Never Trump supporter. At what point did you join the movement?
PR: It was something I felt all throughout the primary season. I certainly became very convinced very early in 2016. So, you know, the idea is I right around New Hampshire, right around some of the early primaries, just quickly realizing that “Ok, this is not going away. We need to be a little bit more vocal about this.” I think the Republican party as a whole unfortunately did not respond quickly enough to this and we got the result we did in the primary. But, in terms of where we move going forward, I think being a Trump defender on November 9th is not going to look as good within the Republican Party, and I think there’ll be an opportunity to rebuild. The Republican party has proved actually surprisingly resilient in the face of Trumpism. Some models have us favored to retain the Senate. And certainly very little chance of any change of control in the House of Representatives. So it’s looking like a normal election, with the exception of the presidential race. I’ve been at least pleasantly surprised, or at least thankful, that that hasn’t been a factor in the process so far.
HPR: You mentioned polling and models. You run Echelon Insights, which is a polling and analytics firm. What are your thoughts on the future of polling?
PR: I think the future of polling is going to be more rooted in hard data about the electorate, in voting files, around what we know about the electorate from large scale analyses, from what the actual demographic and population and likelihood to vote makeup is from actual voter behavior. We know from studies that while the traditional way of asking people, “Are you likely to vote?” is somewhat predictive in general of types of people who vote, it’s not always the most accurate. The most accurate view we have of whether a voter is a likely voter or not is their past behavior, and in order to make polling more accurate, we feel like we have to use data that we actually have from voter files. I should state that not everybody does this. Most media polls are simple random digit dialing in which they really don’t check if somebody’s on the voter rolls necessarily. They’re not calling off the voter file, so they have to ask questions like, “Are you likely to vote?” cause otherwise we don’t have that grounding. We were doing both a post-debate survey in the field right now, alongside digital analytics on the debate, monitoring conversations from Twitter, looking at Google search volume, looking at what were the big moments of the debate, and using that both to inform kind of some of our post-debate survey, as well to come up with a more real time analysis of what happened during the debate.
HPR: In your mind, what do you think the GOP needs to do to ensure down ballot victories this cycle and also in future cycles?
PR: I think it would be helpful if you have candidates that are making the argument that “I’m independent of Donald Trump,” and I think that’s sort of something that we wanted to create a space for Never Trump. I don’t think there’s a lot of activism that we feel like at this point is productive to do in the presidential election. People are going to make up their own minds. People have very strong feelings about these candidates at the presidential level. But I think it’s very important for us to try and create a space for Republicans to say, “You know what? I’m a Republican, but I am not a Trump Republican.” and I think we’ve seen that be successful, even for a lot of candidates like Kelly Ayotte running eleven points better than Donald Trump in New Hampshire, with Rob Portman running around 13 points stronger than Donald Trump in Ohio, which is not Trump’s worse state by any means. Trump could win Ohio. And then John McCain for example. and I think getting more candidates to follow that example of insulating themselves. And ultimately, I think as we head down the stretch and it becomes clearer that Hillary Clinton is favored, then, ultimately, making the argument that you need a Republican Senate as a check against Hillary Clinton.
HPR: You also run Engage, a digital agency. What do you think future candidates can learn from Donald Trump’s social media strategy?
PR: Well I think it’s very unique. I used to be a staffer on a presidential campaign. They told me never to use anything like Twitter or what came before Twitter, because it might discredit a candidate somehow. And now we have a candidate who is tweeting himself and discrediting his overall election campaign and his overall potential chances, where it’s becoming a major, major issue. It’s amazing that some of his quotes last night were…Hillary Clinton effectively quoted his tweets and they removed some of the tweets from the internet. They were [being] deleted and that was something we picked up on Twitter. So, I think it’s unique. I mean we’ve been telling candidates for years, “Be more authentic on social media,” but there has to be somewhat of a filter, or at least the candidate have to be a sane and well-grounded individual. I think there’s that important caveat. I think it’s good that candidates are now engaging more, paying more attention to their social media. They’re able to communicate directly to voters. And how it frankly drives the mainstream televised press coverage, that he’s been able to very effectively set the agenda for the print and for the television media through his tweets. If nothing else, Donald Trump understands free media better than any other candidates who’s ever run for president before.
HPR: And if Trump loses, there’s talk of him launching an over-the-top network or a cable network. As a digital strategist, do you think this is a viable idea?
PR: There’s an audience for it. There’s sort of a sense that Fox News is potentially vulnerable with the departure of Roger Ailes. Roger Ailes is helping Trump, although I don’t know how much he had to do with the debate performance last night. My doubt is, is Trump a good enough businessman to actually carry that out, given some of the concerns and issues that have been raised around how much income he’s actually earning, how wealthy he is, why isn’t he paying taxes? Is it because he’s not making much at the end of the day, and it’s being cancelled out by huge losses? So I think it’s likely he may try. I don’t know how successful. I don’t know, would it be shows with him? Or would it be him running it? That’s a very interesting question.
HPR: And if Trump wins, how do you think it will change the political consulting landscape, considering he’s run this campaign like a family business, largely by himself?
PR: Well, it certainly changes the primary dynamic quite a bit. I mean, in all likelihood, it will not change our perception of what it takes to win at the general election level. But at the primary level, it should scare a lot of people that you have establishment, frontrunner candidates who can be so easily pushed aside by a celebrity candidate who’s never run before and is not spending any real significant money on paid television advertising.