Real-estate mogul Donald Trump is not the most cautious speaker in the Republican presidential primary field.
He’s in a public feud with the nation’s largest Spanish-language television network, with one of its premier networks, and with a major retailer over comments suggesting that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and drug runners.
And despite all that, he’s rising in recent polls, placing second in both national surveys and polls of key early-voting states.
This means one thing: In a little more than a month, the outspoken Trump will almost certainly be one of the candidates who polls high enough to earn a spot on stage at the first Republican primary debate. He’s currently in seventh place, according to the Real Clear Politics average of five recent national polls — the top 10 make it into the debate.
It’s a potential disaster in the making for Republicans who desire a more prim and proper run-up to selecting their nominee.
“I think there’s a real risk that he makes the August 6 debate look like a clown show,” Greg Valliere, the chief political strategist for the Potomac Research Group, told Business Insider. “There will be plenty of outrageous Trump sound bites on the morning news the next day.”
Trump’s presence on the debate stage presents a complicated situation for Republican presidential candidates, who have mostly ignored him or brushed him off.
But during the debate, they will be forced to confront Trump directly. Some political strategists predict it could distract from meat-and-potatoes issues and make Republicans look silly.
“Donald Trump is like watching a roadside accident,” former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer told Politico recently. “Everybody pulls over to see the mess. And Trump thinks that’s entertainment. But running for president is serious. And the risk for the party is he tarnishes everybody.”
Valliere said Trump is “a very generous gift to Hillary Clinton.” And some Democratic strategists are ripe with anticipation.
During one 2012 primary debate, eventual nominee Mitt Romney moved far to the right and said he favoured the process of “self-deportation,” in a comment that’s still attributed to severely hurting his status with Latino voters in the general election. He garnered only 27% of the Latino vote to President Barack Obama’s 71%, prompting the Republican National Committee to focus on Latino outreach in its post-election “autopsy” report.
As he has so far during the campaign, Trump is sure to make immigration a focus of his platform during debates.
“I am a person of faith — and the Donald’s entry into this race can only be attributed to the fact that the good Lord is a Democrat with a sense of humour,” Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic strategist and longtime Clinton ally, told The Washington Post.
But not everyone thinks Trump’s presence is a guaranteed negative.
GOP strategist Liz Mair, the founder of Mair Strategies LLC and the former online communications director at the Republican National Committee, told Business Insider that Trump could help first-time Republican presidential candidates learn how to deflect claims from a critic who isn’t concerned about bomb-throwing or disrespecting candidates.
“These guys need to start contending with difficult situations. And certainly being on the debate stage with him is going to be very challenging,” Mair said.
Mair also noted that Trump could help the eventual nominee prepare for hecklers and tough questions on the campaign trail, and could even provide an opportunity to make the candidates look good if they can pull of a good heckler’s retort.
“So much of that is going to depend on how coolly and calmly they handle this and laugh it off and dispense with it,” Mair said.
But they also might be dealing with a candidate who, according to recent polls, is in the top tier of GOP hopefuls. Trump has seen a surge in recent surveys, trailing only former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among GOP primary voters in a new CNN poll released on Wednesday.
Some pollsters think a correction could come sooner rather than later, though.
Sam Wang, a neuroscientist and professor at Princeton University, told Business Insider that since the presidential field is so large, it isn’t hard for Trump’s core supporters to inflate his strength.
“This year, with close to 20 candidates expected to enter the race, the threshold for looking like a top tier contender is quite low — even 10% of GOP primary voters is enough,” Wang said. “We don’t know whether his ceiling is greater than 50% of GOP voters (where Rubio is probably at) or more like 25% of GOP voters. I would not construe Trump’s support as indicating that he is serious.”
Added University of Michigan polling expert and political science professor Michael Traugott: “The poll results with regard to candidate standing are ephemeral at this stage, primarily a function of name recognition. Trump has greater name recognition than many of the others, especially the governors. But name recognition is not the same as support.”
But Trump is uniquely positioned to dominate the news cycle because of that name recognition. His little concern for bomb-throwing has allowed him to grab attention away from candidates who haven’t been as outspoken.
Mair and Valliere agreed that Trump is appealing to a part of the electorate that appreciates the real-estate mogul’s willingness to say what other candidates won’t.
“He has supporters who hate the status quo, who like someone who says what people are thinking but won’t discuss publicly,” Valliere said.
The official Republican response to Trump has been mixed. Some presidential candidates whose poll numbers are underwater have been willing to engage with him..
On Tuesday, former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) blasted Trump in a conversation with Business Insider, calling his comments about Mexican immigrants “disrespectful.” The next day, Pataki called on other Republican candidates to denounce Trump’s comments. Earlier in the week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took a different stance, defending Trump’s comments.
But the front-runners have largely stayed above the fray.
On Monday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) took a subtle swipe at Trump’s self proclaimed fortune, but didn’t weigh in decisively on his pot-stirring.
Regardless of the fact that he is quite unpopular among many Republican primary voters, pollsters and analysts agree that Trump will likely be able to muster enough support to get to the early debates. And when he gets there, he’ll pose a distinct, perhaps defining early challenge to the other candidates.
“Trump is bombastic and my guess is he will try to monopolize the mic,” Traugott said. “It will be an interesting question to see whether the others will ignore him or will be tempted to take equally or more extreme positions to appeal to likely Republican primary voters.”
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