In early July, Donald Trump took the lead in national opinion polls of the 2016 Republican presidential primary for the first time. And with a few recent exceptions he’s been leading all the other Republican contenders ever since.
If you do the math, Trump’s lead spans almost a hundred public opinion polls released over the course of the last 130 days. To maintain the top spot for so long in a field as turbulent and vast as this one is, in a word, domination.
Trump has shown amazing consistency as well. He hasn’t polled below 20% since late July, and his current Real Clear Politics polling average is 24.3 percent—which is exactly what it was in early August as he was settling in as the new frontrunner.
Despite these numbers, however, skepticism abounds that Trump will be the eventual GOP nominee for three reasons:
- The anticipation/expectation of a Trump meltdown. The likes of which we may have witnessed when Trump went on a maddening rant during an embarrassing campaign stop in Iowa last week.
- The anticipation/expectation Republican primary voters would eventually grow tired of Trump’s bombastic ways.
- The polls have so often been wrong, as I’ve written about previously for CR.
For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll set aside the first factor and instead focus on the other two. We have actual data to determine whether those factors are real or speculative. And the data says they’re the latter.
While there is ample evidence and historical encouragement to doubt early primary polls, which I’ve documented in the past, at the same time we have never seen a frontrunner with the staying power Trump has shown in this race. A poll here or there has him breaking into the high 30s or early 40s, but for the most part his support has been solidly in the mid-20s for months regardless of the rise and fall of the others.
This shows he has established a loyal base, and isn’t just a prolonged flash in the pan, taking advantage of way more free media than anyone else to temporarily soar in the name I.D.-driven polls. That base has been loyal to Trump despite media attempts to fixate on him with the goal of elimination. That loyal bloc of support has stayed with Trump whether he’s the target of campaign rivals, the liberal media, or GOP establishment-leaning Fox News.
So, yes, the public polling industry nowadays is more than questionable. Yet when they’re all reporting largely the same thing about the same person for this long, there’s definitely something there.
But who is Trump’s base?
The first clue is who Trump replaced atop the national polls—Jeb Bush. Once Mitt Romney announced in January he would not pursue yet another presidential election loss, Bush was at or near the top of the polls from mid-February until late June – usually alongside Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who is no longer in the race.
Both Bush and Walker were favorites of GOP establishment media, constantly covered by the national press. When you follow the polling trend line in this campaign, Trump’s ascendancy seems to come largely at their expense.
Most analysis of Trump’s base was conducted in the first few weeks of his lead. But since Trump’s support has remained relatively static as mentioned earlier, that analysis remains relevant and becomes our second clue.
In late August, a column in The Federalist took an in-depth look at Trump’s base and found that when factoring in actual voting history his support fell to 16%. It showed that Trump performed best among “less frequent voters,” as in Republican-leaning adults who didn’t vote in the 2012 general election.
The study also found that contrary to conventional wisdom, neither immigration nor any other singular issue was the primary driving force of Trump’s popularity. Rather personality-driven reasons like “he tells like it is” or “he’s ballsy” are what voters mentioned most often to pollsters. This explains why no matter how outrageous he gets Trump’s base does not desert him. They’re there because he’s outrageous, and/or they’re outraged by the status quo.
Furthermore, a Washington Times analysis found that Trump polls strongest with moderate and liberal Republican voters who previously supported—you guessed it—Jeb Bush. Trump also does well with “somewhat conservative” voters, who previously were supporting Walker. Then Trump’s support begins to decline the more conservative you go.
Here’s what this all means.
In a true twist of irony, Trump has become this cycle’s establishment candidate. No, I’m not saying he represents the establishment, but he is occupying their space in this race and that’s why they hate him. As in Trump is the candidate people may or may not ideologically gravitate to, but rally to because he’s who they see the most in the media. It’s just that the buzzword “electable” has been replaced in this cycle by “outsider.”
In the past it’s been one establishment candidate consistently polling at 20-30% versus a field of splintered conservatives, and he picks them off one by one. Think Mitt Romney 2012 versus a field of “flavors of the month.” Now that candidate is Trump who is trying to stop the other candidates from amassing a base larger than his. Because while Trump’s base has been loyal, which is good, it’s also been static. He probably has the support he’s going to have at this point, as more ideologically-driven voters become more engaged here down the stretch.
In other words he has a high floor but a low ceiling.
Trump’s road to the nomination, like the establishment frontrunners before him whose space he now occupies, requires conservatives remaining splintered and not coalescing around the same candidate. Then there’s Ben Carson, whose supporter profile is almost identical to Trump’s in that it’s driven by personality more so than ideology.
Therefore, of course Trump could be the nominee given the loyal base he’s established. However, it’s just as likely that eventually he’ll find himself caught between Carson’s likeminded cult of personality and coalescing (for once) conservatives.
So what if Trump is the GOP nominee? We will examine that question in part two later this week.
First published at the Conservative Review
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