When Donald Trump leapfrogged GOP field in polling over the summer, conventional wisdom said it was only a matter of time before his lead gave way to a more seasoned politician. Over the years we’ve seen Republican primary voters fall hard and fast for political newbies like Ben Carson, Herman Cain, Pat Buchanan, and Pat Robertson, before eventually choosing experienced officeholders. And back in June we were told that history would surely repeat itself, with Jeb Bush being the likely if not rightful nominee.
That was five months ago, and not only is Trump still leading, he’s doing so by his widest margin yet. According to a CNN/ORC poll released Friday, nationally The Donald is crushing his opponents with a gaudy 36% among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Meanwhile, Bush’s embarrassing 3% is his lowest number ever.
From July 13 to December 1, there have been 47 major national GOP polls conducted, according to Real Clear Politics. Trump topped 43 of them, with Ben Carson taking the other four. But the Carson campaign’s much anticipated terminal decline is now underway, and nationally Trump has gained more from the former neurosurgeon’s fall than any other candidate:
While some political analysts just can’t bring themselves to believe that Trump’s dominance has been real — in part by pointing to the fact that national primary polling isn’t a bellwether — the reality is that Trump is still leading in the early primary states.
Trump’s lead in Iowa is 2% over Ted Cruz — a statistical dead heat. If recent history is any guide, Cruz is primed for victory in the Hawkeye State, whose Republican Caucus voters have been recently inclined to vote for religious fundamentalists (Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012).
The important thing to remember, however, is that the Iowa Caucuses are virtually irrelevant in the GOP primary season. As I noted in March,
Discounting years in which there was an incumbent Republican president as a candidate (since they run unopposed), the winner of the Iowa Republican Caucuses has gone on to win the party’s nomination just twice in six caucuses. Only once has the winner eventually won the general election. That was George W. Bush in 2000, which means that no non-incumbent Republican has won the Iowa Caucuses and gone on to win the popular vote in the general election.
True, the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries aren’t until February, but here’s the thing.
Trump the billionaire hasn’t even really begun to spend money on TV and radio ads.
The chart above shows the candidates’ average poll numbers and the amount each campaign and its allies (such as super PACs, which can’t coordinate with the campaigns) have spent on television and radio ads. Having spent a little more than $200,000 on television ads, Trump nonetheless leads the field. Bush and his backers, by contrast, have spent nearly triple the amount of the second highest spender (Rubio), and have barely managed 5%. What’s worse for Bush is that the more he spends, the worse he does:
Bush and company have spent nearly $30 million — about 150 times more than Trump has — to lose half of his supporters, which were few to begin with. And while the polling data above is among national Republicans, the New Hampshire GOP that Bush has been feverishly targeting remains steadfastly against voting for him. A Public Policy Polling survey released this week shows Bush polling at 5% in New Hampshire — good for sixth place and 22 point behind Trump. The more New Hampshirites hear from Bush, the less they like him.
Though it’s still early in the race, Trump’s five month-long frontrunner status has already upended conventional thinking about political campaigns in a few ways. For one thing, he’s attained big leads nationally and in early primary states without spending hardly any money. For another, he’s managed to climb to the top without offering much in the way of specific policy proposals. No doubt, candidates are usually averse to such specifics, but Trump’s speeches and debate responses have been especially vapid. Third, despite the fact Trump has made a slew of controversial statements of the sort that have quickly sunk candidates in the past, he has maintained and even extended his lead over rivals.
Trump still has plenty of time to implode, and Bush has time to make a comeback. But time is getting short, and apparently so is Republican voters’ tolerance of professional politicians.