Trump’s opponents for the GOP nomination are united in condemning his proposal, as have many opinion-makers in the mainstream media. Even the White House has entered the controversy, stating that Trump’s proposal disqualifies him as a legitimate presidential candidate. But outraged objections to some of Trump’s earlier proposals, such as building a wall along the border with Mexico to halt illegal immigration, only served to make him more popular with the GOP base and boosted his lead in the polls.
The uproar over his call for the suspension of Muslim immigration is far more intense, in large part because of the surprising durability of Trump’s lead in the race, which has given him more credibility as a serious presidential candidate.
Trump has been able to get away with controversial statements and positions which would be fatal to more conventional candidacies because he is not judged by the public by the same standards as professional politicians. He has become a master in making statements which connect with Americans and antagonize the GOP mainstream bigwigs and the media.
GOP activists who oppose his nomination are joining together in an coordinated effort to halt his campaign’s momentum. They are facing a difficult challenge. So far, negative attack ads have been less effective against Trump than against conventional candidates. Trump has also been able to win significant support from independents and Democrat voters from blue-collar and working class backgrounds who are outside the usual GOP voter base. That is likely to be a valuable asset if Trump does win the GOP nomination and then runs in the general election.
Trump’s message resonates most strongly among voters who are disillusioned with conventional elected political leaders and who do not believe that any of them can put the country back on the “right track.”
MORE THAN JUST A PROTEST VOTE
Trump is generating more than just a protest vote. Most of his supporters believe that the country needs a strong leader like Trump whose gut instincts about what is needed to solve its problems are generally in tune with theirs. They trust Trump because he is financially independent, and therefore unafraid to defy media critics and the straightjacket of political correctness which has overly constrained the limits of political debate.
Trump supporters are typically less concerned with the accuracy and consistency of the details of his policy proposals than they are with his overall direction. They understand that Trump is breaking new ground, and are therefore willing to give him more leeway than other candidates to modify his positions as he goes along.
Previous GOP nomination races quickly settled down into two-candidate contests between the leaders of the party’s two main factions, the business-oriented establishment wing of the GOP, and its socially conservative wing, including members of the religious-right. In the 2012 race, Mitt Romney won the support of the GOP establishment, but faced a strong challenge from Newt Gingrich who appealed to social conservative and religious voters. In 2008, John McCain eventually emerged as the first choice of the party establishment, while social and religious conservatives coalesced around Mike Huckabee’s campaign. In the 2016 race, Trump has succeeded in establishing a third group of voters large enough to challenge the dominance of the other two.
IN REAGAN’S FOOTSTEPS
Like Trump, many of Ronald Reagan’s supporters were drawn to him by his likability and personal qualities of leadership more than the details of his proposals. As with Trump, Reagan’s critics at the time were frustrated with his ability to retain his popularity even when minor errors or inconsistencies were exposed in his statements and positions. What both Reagan and Trump understood, and their critics did not, is that the most important thing to win is to maintain the trust of the voters.
That explains why Trump almost never admits that he was wrong or backtracks from a controversial position in the face of criticism. By standing firm under fire, Trump proves to his supporters that they can trust him to stick by his promises. This is in contrast to other Republican candidates who say one thing to GOP voters when they are running for office, but cave in to pressure once they reach Washington and betray the principles upon which they were elected.
Trump presents himself as a political maverick, and does not deny that his positions on certain issues have changed over the years. His current views are largely acceptable to several large voter groups, including social conservatives, budget hawks and business leaders. According to GOP strategist David Winston, Trump’s main appeal that unites his supporters is “attitudinal.” He connects strongly with voters fed up with elected officials who fail to deliver on the promises they made to the voters when they were campaigning for election. They are far more interested in a candidate’s direction and follow-through than the fine points of his policy proposals.
Winston says that Trump has opened up a new political channel “for people who want to hear a candidate say, ‘I want to do this, and I’ll do it no matter what,’ ”
VOTERS LOOKING FOR A STRONG LEADER THEY CAN TRUST
That is why Trump holds a wide lead in the polls with GOP voters who believe that the most important attribute they want from their presidential candidate is the ability to be a “strong leader.”
Another attribute on which Trump scores highly with voters is his ability to protect national security, on which he also leads the rest of the GOP field, with the possible exception of Ted Cruz. This will be especially important going forward, now that the ISIS attacks in Paris have made terrorism and national security the most important issues in the campaign.
The GOP campaign has been littered with expert predictions that Trump’s popularity would soon fade, only to be proved wrong. Winston believes that is because this GOP campaign is in uncharted territory. Noting the strongly negative attitudes being expressed by GOP voters, Winston said, “we haven’t had ‘wrong track’ [views] be this bad for this long, or political discourse be this frustrated.”
The closest parallel was the surge of voter support generated by industrialist Ross Perot, who ran as a third party presidential candidate during the 1990’s on calls for a balanced budget and an end to the outsourcing of US jobs to foreign countries, particularly China.
EXPANDING THE VOTER BASE
Trump has also demonstrated his strong appeal to conservative independents and blue collar Democrats, who will be allowed to vote in many of the GOP primaries and caucuses.
Trump has maintained or extended his lead, both in national polls of GOP voters, and in the first primary race in New Hampshire. On average, Trump holds a 2-1 lead nationally roughly 30% to 15%, over his three leading rivals, Cruz, Carson and Rubio. In one national poll, Trump’s support reached 36%, refuting claims by some of his critics that he will not be able to maintain his lead once the GOP field of candidates gets whittled down to just two or three choices.
Trump holds a similar lead over the same three candidates in New Hampshire. However, Cruz is making the race much closer in Iowa, thanks to the appeal of the Texas senator to the state’s large block of religious right GOP voters. In response, Trump’s campaign is seeking to exploit his appeal to working class and blue collar voters by scheduling appearances in Iowa communities with recently closed factories.
CAN THE GOP ESTABLISHMENT STOP TRUMP?
The effort by the establishment wing GOP to halt Trump’s momentum is concentrating on the February votes in Iowa and New Hampshire. A number of anti-Trump Super PACs are spending millions of dollars to run negative ads exposing Trump’s previous liberal positions on social issues which are inconsistent with the current GOP consensus, as well as certain aspects of his business dealings.
Other Trump critics still cannot believe that his popularity can last with Republican voters, and are still predicting that his poll numbers will inevitably fade as the time approaches for them to actually start voting.
But conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh points out that these predictions fail to take into account Trump’s continued domination of the campaign’s media coverage. That provides Trump with millions of dollars worth of free publicity promoting his message, and enables him to set the issues agenda for the entire campaign.
MANIPULATING THE MEDIA
His ability to goad the media, which hates him, into granting him free wall-to-wall coverage is a testament to his communication skills. His argument against allowing any Muslims to enter the country was guaranteed to resonate with voters and command the total attention of the media, as well as politicians of both parties, from Obama on down. It was another demonstration of how completely he owns the media and the support of his followers.
Because he is such a well-known figure in the popular culture, Trump is not afraid of being attacked in the media. He knows how to react to such attacks in a way that increases his popularity and burnishes his image of independence. Trump understands that the media relies upon him to maximize their audience, and therefore must ultimately accommodate his needs.
Another interesting question is whether Trump’s strong and durable appeal to frustrated conservatives and working class voters is a one-time phenomenon, unique to this election cycle, or will it launch a stable new faction within the Republican voter base, similar to the emergence of the Tea Party faction in the 2010 election cycle.
Whether he ultimately wins the GOP nomination and the presidency or not, Trump’s unique campaign is breaking new ground, and its powerful dynamics will be closely studied in political science classes for decades to come.