The Trump Phenomenon

The problem for candidates such as Trump, who is relying heavily on very conservative support, comes once the field narrows.  After the campaign becomes a one-on-one race, the GOP establishment and liberal media join forces with the supermajority of somewhat conservative and moderate GOP voters to ensure the more moderate candidate wins.  It is here where Trump may hit a wall, as have many before him.

By Andrew Thomas l September 10, 2015

30,000 rally for Trump in Mobile, Alabama on Friday, August 21, 2015/Photo:Melissa Golden for CNN

If, as a wag might say, it was inevitable that politics and reality TV would eventually fuse, the stunning product of this amalgamation cannot be dismissed as flippantly.  Insiders who underestimated Donald Trump’s willingness to pull the trigger and actually run for president now must confront a candidacy that has surged in proportion to the bravado and force he uniquely brings to the race.

When he announced his candidacy in June, Trump enjoyed less than four percent support among Republican voters.  That changed abruptly and dramatically as soon as he uttered two words that, up to then, the GOP establishment largely had managed to keep out of the presidential race:  illegal immigration.  Trump’s raw comments about illegal immigrants and the problems they import to the country singlehandedly propelled him to the top of the heap, as Trump rocketed past more establishment politicians who took their cue from party elders and donors and ignored the issue.

Trump’s subsequent shots at John McCain and, far more seriously, Megyn Kelly of Fox News would have shaken most Republican candidacies. Yet Trump has soldiered on, defying conventional wisdom and retaining his status as the GOP frontrunner.

How did he accomplish this?  Trump’s intangibles include decades of experience in dealing with journalists and a related public chutzpah.  In the political arena, when coupled with tough talk about illegal immigration, this brash manner is seen as political incorrectness.  Trump offers this to voters fuming over the political class’s seeming indifference to the country’s steady decline.

Trump also has a sense of humor.  When, at the recent Fox News presidential debate, Kelly read off Trump’s put-downs of female targets of his past wrath, Trump interrupted her to deliver the most effective line of the Fox News debate, saying these words were true of “only Rosie O’Donnell.”  Referring to the outspoken liberal fixture of daytime television, the quip caused the Cleveland audience to roar with laughter.  Commentators who afterwards thought the exchange catastrophic for Trump misjudged both the occasion and the reason for Trump’s surge.

Still, Trump faces big hurdles that are only now fully coming into view.  He has adopted, in an act of unusual political honesty, a clear and tough plan on securing the border.  This hardline approach is the product of working with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, who appeared onstage with Trump on August 21 before 30,000 Trump-cheering constituents in his home state of Alabama.  Trump’s plan includes forcing Mexico to finance construction of a border fence and ending birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants.  The plan paints a bright target on Trump’s back for the open-border plutocrats who, in this new age of dark money and unlimited contributions, increasingly determine the outcome of Republican races.

Trump will surely feel this heat, presumably in Iowa, where Newt Gingrich felt it four years ago.  The former House speaker, who once was perched as high in the polls as Trump is now, learned the hard way that riding a wave of free media will not insulate a candidate effectively from millions of dollars of scorching negative TV ads.  That proved true in the Hawkeye State and subsequent state contests in 2012.  Trump has far more personal funds to draw upon than did Gingrich.  But the amount of his fortune Trump is willing, at the end of the day, to spend on his candidacy is unclear.

There are other warning signs for Trump.  In his groundbreaking study of the Republican electorate, Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, noted there are four blocs of voters in the Republican Party.  They are moderate or liberal voters, somewhat conservative voters, very conservative, evangelical voters, and very conservative, secular voters.  The biggest group, which is stable in all states and forms the “bedrock base of the Republican Party,” is somewhat conservative voters.  They are 35-40 percent of the GOP electorate.  In presidential races, these voters determine the winner, and have in the last four open Republican presidential races (backing Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, McCain in 2008, and Romney in 2010).  And they eschew outsiders such as Trump.

The other three blocs are less influential.  The next largest group is liberals and moderates, at 25-30 percent of Republican voters.  They become, Olsen notes, a “secure bank of votes for a somewhat conservative candidates who emerges from the early stages of the primary season” against a more religious rival.  Very conservative evangelicals make up about 20 percent of the total, and very conservative seculars come in at around 5 to 10 percent.

The problem for candidates such as Trump, who is relying heavily on very conservative support, comes once the field narrows.  After the campaign becomes a one-on-one race, the GOP establishment and liberal media join forces with the supermajority of somewhat conservative and moderate GOP voters to ensure the more moderate candidate wins.  It is here where Trump may hit a wall, as have many before him.

Some evidence suggests Trump already has plateaued. According to, Trump’s polling peaked at the Fox News debate.  Since then, though his support has not plummeted, it has fallen, from 24.3 percent on the day of the debate to 22.0 percent and has rebounded to remain in the lead at 29 percent.  Still, with more than five months until the Iowa caucuses, many factors could affect the race and Trump’s standing.

One more unique dynamic comes into play for Trump, one that could give his candidacy a genuine second wind should his march to the nomination falter.  At the Fox News debate, Trump was pointedly (and to his obvious disadvantage) the only candidate who refused to rule out a third-party run.  Initial polling shows Trump, in such a scenario, would have a fighting chance.  A recent Reuters poll found that in a three-way race between Democrat Hillary Clinton, Republican Jeb Bush and an independent Donald Trump, Clinton would capture 37 percent of the vote, while Bush and Trump would deadlock at about 23 percent.  That Governor Bush, the consensus favorite for the Republican nomination, merely ties Trump in a three-way race at this point is not good news for Republicans. 

Having agreed, since the debate, to sign the GOP pledge to run only as a Republican, Trump can always change his mind and may well do so, if the GOP establishment treats him poorly to deny him the Republican nomination.

Those who compare Trump to Ross Perot, the last major third-party presidential candidate, shortchange him.  First, Trump is a veteran of more than three decades of being in the national public eye.  As such, he is clearly more media-savvy.

More fundamentally, the electorate has changed dramatically since Perot ran twenty years ago.  According to Gallup, a record-high number of voters identify themselves as independent.  In fact, at 43 percent of American voters, independents now constitute a plurality of the U.S. electorate.  Thirty percent of voters identify themselves as Democrats, and 26 percent call themselves Republicans.  Party loyalties are dissolving.  The time has never been better in the modern era for a major third-party presidential candidate to arise.  This is particularly so if the candidate catches fire on a visceral issue ignored by the two major parties, such as illegal immigration.

Here, Republican leaders have reason for a lump in their collective throat.  For many election cycles, Republican voters have watched their nominees promise to secure the border, stop Obamacare funding and the like, and then break their promises right after the election.  Like any leader or organization, a political party can get away with lying to its own members only for so long.  Conservative anger at Republican leaders for such betrayal is real and deep.  If Trump can tap into this and attract enough other disaffected voters, he may prove the first real third-party threat since Teddy Roosevelt – another outsized personality who bolted from the Republican Party.

Andrew Thomas is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School. Twice elected as Maricopa County Attorney, the district attorney for metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas served a county of four million residents and ran one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the nation. He established a national reputation for fighting violent crime, identity theft, drug abuse and illegal immigration. He is the author of four books, including Clarence Thomas: A Biography and the The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech. Mr. Thomas ran for governor of Arizona in 2014, receiving endorsements from many conservative leaders. He is a fellow with the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.