Since he entered the GOP contest, most pundits and GOP insiders have treated Trump as a sometimes humorous – sometimes infuriating – distraction from the real race for the Republican nomination.
Now they are beginning to wake up to the fact that Trump is not going away. He is, in fact, a real contender for the nomination. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that a significant portion of his voters will “come to their senses” and withdraw their support from Trump.
In a Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll released August 25, Trump held a commanding lead in the first in the nation New Hampshire primary with 35% of the vote. The establishment candidates, Bush (7%), Walker (7%) and Rubio (6%) don’t even come close. In fact Trump has a lead of 15% on the three of them combined.
A Monmouth University poll showed Trump with a commanding lead of 30% in South Carolina as well.
Trump is not a political clown. He is a very talented right wing populist demagogue. And he has brought into full relief many of the radical policies of the entire GOP field – especially when it comes to immigration.
Trump has seven critical advantages in his campaign for the GOP nomination:
First, his core message is resonant with many GOP voters – especially working class white men. His message is simple: “I will stop them from taking advantage of you.”
Remember, most Americans haven’t had a raise in 30 years. All of America’s massive economic growth has gone to the top 1% -- people like Trump. Most Americans do believe that someone has been taking advantage of them. Of course Trump doesn’t pin the blame on CEO’s, Wall Street banks or big corporations – or on the politicians that have stacked the economic deck in their favor at the expense of ordinary Americans.
Like most right wing populist demagogues before him, he focuses on “the other” – immigrants, and foreign governments – and on the political class in general – whom he positions as incompetent and corrupt.
To make real change he offers a strong man – himself – a man who is not beholden to anyone and can make “real” change.
Second, Trump is credible at delivering that right wing populist message because he can claim that the “establishment” won’t own him, because he doesn’t need their money. He can claim he is free to destroy the status quo, since he won’t owe anyone anything.
Trump understands that many voters, especially frustrated white working class men, don’t care about his “policy proposals” or his “experience” in government. They want a tough son-of-a-bitch who will tear down the establishment that they believe has failed them. And Trump has spent his entire career learning how to behave like a tough son-of-a-bitch. His trade-mark line, after all, is: “your fired.”
Third, Trump has spent 25 years learning how to generate attention to himself. He is one of the most experienced and successful self-promoters in modern America. That self-promotion has been at the heart of his success building a fortune.
Trump is no Bill Gates who invented an entire new industry. He is a latter-day P.T. Barnam – a brilliant promoter. And that accounts for his ability to eclipse other pretenders to the right wing populist throne, like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker. There is no reason to believe that his ability to attract attention to himself will wane or be overtaken by lesser lights.
Of course part of his attraction lies in his willingness to say whatever he thinks might get attention. He thinks of himself as a bigger-than-life success who doesn’t need to win in order to be a big deal. That frees him to be “authentic” and outrageous.
And his skills at self-promotion are fed by an insatiable desire for attention. For Trump, attention appears to be the drug of choice. He craves it. He is driven by it. Don’t expect that drive to lessen. The Presidential race has allowed him to taste a stronger, more powerful drug than ever before. The President of the United States is the most written about, most photographed, most talked about person on earth. Now that he has had a taste, his desire for the Presidency will grow by the day into an obsession. Trump isn't leaving the race.
Fourth, one of the reasons he is so successful – and has such political endurance – is his unwillingness to ever allow himself to be put on the defensive.
Trump understands a key rule of politics: when you’re on the defense, you’re losing.
As a result, outrageous comments that would sink any other candidate don’t faze him. He never ever apologizes – he just counter-punches. His skill staying on offense gives him a coating of political Teflon. Every time the pundit class decides that one comment or the other will certainly lead to his eminent political demise, he just plows ahead, unruffled.
Fifth – and definitely not least – he is, as he constantly points out, very, very rich. He can stay in the race as long as he wants, without fear that his contributions will dry up.
That is a huge advantage. No one questions that he can stay in the race, and that creates its own momentum.
Sixth, to many people, Trump seems like a winner. Voters follow winners, not losers.
For many people, Trump appears to be a winner in life – at least in business. And he exudes the self-confidence that communicates success. No stench of personal or political failure here. His persona screams winner.
And remember human beings, after all, are pack animals – they travel in packs. Now that he has established himself as the leader of the GOP political pack, the sense of bandwagon will generate even more supporters. Bandwagon, after all, is an independent variable in politics.
Seventh, the delegate math could easily work for Trump. Some primaries and caucuses divide their delegates proportionately – like Iowa. In fact, GOP rules require proportional allocation of delegates for primaries and caucuses held before March 14, 2016. After that, states are free to have winner-take-all primaries and caucuses -- where all of the delegates go to the top voter getter.
That means that if Trump is still able to command 25% to 30% of the vote after March 14 – and if many candidates remain in the field -- he could likely win all of the delegates in many states.
For instance, Florida now has a winner-take-all primary. So if Bush and Rubio split the “establishment” vote there, Trump could easily win all of its 99 delegates.
In fact, to stop Trump, the GOP establishment will have to figure out how to anoint one challenger and then get many of the others to resign from the race. And for that challenger to be credible, he can’t look like a stooge for the old guard or Trump will rip him (or her) limb from limb.
That could be tough. The presence of super PACs funded by just a couple of donors allows candidates to stay in the race long after their contributions might otherwise have dried up.
All of this could make Trump more than a right wing demagogue – it could make him a dangerous right wing demagogue. If Trump wins the GOP nomination and a shot at the Presidency, that is certainly a frightening prospect.
Could Trump win a general election? It would be very, very hard. His popularity with a chunk of the Republican electorate should not be mistaken for popularity with the broader American population. Luckily, America is a more and more diverse society. His demagoguery has already led him to alienate huge sections of the broader electorate – Hispanics and other immigrants, many women voters and African Americans. He is also generally unappealing to many millennials. Demographics make it very difficult for a GOP candidate to ever again win the General Election with mostly white, male voters.
And luckily, Hillary Clinton – and all of the other serious Democratic contenders -- share an increasingly populist tone of their own – one that points directly to the real cause of ordinary people’s financial problems and feelings that they have been short-changed by the status quo.
The Democratic populist narrative targets politicians who have stacked the economic deck in favor of CEO’s, big corporations and Wall Street – and against the interests of ordinary Americans. And polling shows that the Democratic populist narrative is much more appealing to most swing voters than the right wing narrative. One reason: it has the advantage of being true.
If Trump were to win the Republican nomination, that narrative would define the contrast that would define the General Election. And billionaire Trump would provide an excellent foil.
But in the meantime Trump’s candidacy has had three effects:
The political oxygen he is consuming has so far prevented any of the establishment-certified contenders from developing any real traction and consolidate leadership in the race.
His harsh rhetoric about immigrants and women has laid bare the real GOP policies that most of the other candidates share by forcing them to adopt Trump’s rhetoric and stripping away the euphemisms they normally use to describe their agenda.
Trump’s success in the polls has led other GOP contenders to emulate his hard-edged right wing populist rhetoric – and his policies. Much of the GOP has always favored mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. Trump has driven more of them to talk about it.
Even Jeb Bush now refers to “anchor babies.”
Trump is firing up many elements of the Democratic base. Trump’s statements lead almost every Spanish language TV broadcast.
And one thing is for sure. If his dominance of the race persists, the GOP political elite will have more than “heartburn” – it will have a coronary.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.