Shortly after the second Republican debate, the consensus began to form: Donald Trump was sinking.
In the weeks after the debate, Politico said that Trump’s performance during the debate had “taken its toll” on his poll numbers. The Washington Post said that the reality television star’s “slide in the polls was beginning to look real.” Business Insider, in the interest of full transparency, wrote in covering a poll that Trump’s lead had “virtually evaporated.”
Trump immediately decried the emerging media narrative, painting the reports as dishonest.
“It’s dishonest reporting and — let me change it — it’s knowingly dishonest,” Trump told Business Insider. “Because the polls speak for themselves. I’m up. Check out Zogby. Check out Reuters — the Reuters — what do they call that? The Reuters average. Even The Huffington Post. Check all of them.”
Less than a week before the next debate, it appears that Trump may, for the moment, have been right. He’s far from done — in fact, in most places this week, he seems to only be getting stronger.
The real-estate magnate has regained his significant leads in several national polls. An ABC survey this week showed that Trump has 32% support among likely Republican voters, 10 points higher than his closest rival, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Trump also topped 25% support in this week’s Wall Street Journal poll, up from 21% in September.
And so, despite predictions upon predictions of Trump’s demise, the campaign has continued to roar ahead. He has now spent more than 100 days atop the national Republican polling average, surprising and confounding analysts with his ability to deflect controversies and his ability to convince Republican voters of the seriousness of his message.
Moreover, this week seemed to mark an inflection point in Trump’s candidacy: Voters, as well as the Republican establishment, are beginning to think he could actually pull this thing off.
An ABC/Washington Post poll this week showed a plurality of Republican primary voters now believe that Trump will likely be the Republican nominee. According to the poll, 43% of likely Republican primary voters said they think Trump will be the nominee, compared to 16% per cent of voters who believe that retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson will be the nominee.
A 2012 study, as reported by The New York Times, found that candidates who voters believe will be the nominee go on to win the nomination more often than candidates who have higher levels of support.
It’s not just voters. Establishment Republican figures have started to confront a new possibility: Trump may actually have a path to the nomination.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who dropped out of the race after just more than 70 days as a candidate, said last week that “it’s possible” that Trump becomes the nominee. 81% of Republican “insiders” in four early-nominating states surveyed by Politico believe Trump has a better chance now of winning the nomination than he did a month ago.
Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and the president of the Potomac Strategy Group, told The Hill that Trump’s candidacy has entered into “uncharted territory.”
“I can think of no situation in either party where someone has dominated the national and early-state polls simultaneously for as long as he has. We’re in un-chartered territory,” he said. There is some realisation that there’s a real chance he could win the nomination.”
Even among Republican voters who do prefer other candidates, Trump is starting to prove convincing that he’s a legitimate leader on key issues. A recent CNN poll showed that Republican voters in South Carolina and Nevada, two key early-nominating states, said Trump was by far the most qualified candidate on a number of issues.
Overall, 67% of Republicans in Nevada said Trump was by far the most qualified to handle the economy. The closest competitor was former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who 7% of supporters believed would do a better job than Trump. An majority of likely Republican caucus-goers there also reported that Trump is the most qualified candidate to tackle “illegal immigration,” which Trump has made a controversial center piece of his campaign.
But Trump also dominates in issue areas where he has not laid out a clear vision.
According to CNN, 34% of Nevada Republicans said Trump was the most qualified to manage US foreign policy efforts, 19 percentage points ahead of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida). And according to Republican voters in the state, Trump would be even better handling ISIS: 46% of the state’s registered Republican voters said Trump was the most qualified. The closest competitor was Rubio, with (13%).
But some longtime Trump watchers are less surprised about his sustained popularity in the polls.
Michael D’Antonio, a longtime New York journalist and author of recent Trump biography “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success,” said that Trump, who has appeared in many public-opinion polls over the last several decades, has always polled relatively well.
“I’m not surprised by his numbers,” D’Antonio said. “He’s always had between 30-40% approval — this goes back to the 1980s. You have to balance that against 60% disapproval. In New York City, it’s actually higher. So it’s almost as if the people who know him better like him less.”
But many political analysts remain unconvinced that these numbers prove that Trump will actually be the nominee.
Princeton University polling expert Sam Wang told Business Insider earlier this month that while he doesn’t believe that Trump will be the nominee, the real-estate tycoon’s staying power at the top of the polls was notable. But he pointed to Trump’s high level of unfavorability compared to the rest of the Republican field as a factor that still threatens his candidacy.
“Trump does have the additional problem that he has some ceiling of support because of his negatives. As a speculation, I think he might persist in the 20-30% range for some time, and that another candidate could pull ahead of that objectively low number,” Wang said.
And there is one emerging new area of weakness: Iowa, the key first-nominating state, where retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has surged ahead of Trump in two polls this week.
Iowa voters have become enamoured with Carson’s personal story, and he has coalesced evangelical conservatives away from Trump and toward his candidacy in the packed GOP field.
One-third of self-described evangelical Christians in the poll chose Carson as their first choice, up from 21% in late August. Meanwhile, a significant number of Iowa Republicans in Iowa find themselves questioning Trump’s faith — 28% say they don’t believe he’s a “committed Christian.”
“His standing has improved in every way pollsters traditionally measure,” J. Ann Selzer, the president of a firm that conducted a poll finding Trump below Carson, told Bloomberg of Carson. “This might be a wake-up for Donald Trump.”
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