On Friday, Ramesh Ponnuru wrote an article for Bloomberg that was balm for the souls of many conservatives who are worried about Donald Trump. The headline, “Trump is a Nuisance, Not a Nightmare,” is exactly what a lot of Republicans — who believe the current frontrunner is a bad dream from which they long to wake up — want to hear. Despite his current popularity, Ponnuru believes Trump can’t win the primaries and be the nominee. As someone who wrote a not dissimilar column here on the “four reasons why Trump will fade” exactly one month earlier than Ponnueru’s was published, I think his arguments are logical and hope both pieces will ultimately be vindicated by events. But a new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll of Iowa voters doesn’t give me much confidence about that hope. There’s a lot to unwrap in this survey, including Bernie Sanders catching up to Hillary Clinton among Democrats. But I’m most interested in three key facts about the Republicans that indicate that the Trump surge is more than a blip on the GOP radar screen. All point to a fact that pundits and establishment Republicans alike need to understand: a lot of GOP voters don’t like politicians.
The Register poll shows that Trump seems to have ceased gaining ground on the rest of the field. He is at 23 percent with Ben Carson an impressive second at 18 percent. Another poll released today by Monmouth actually has Carson catching Trump with both tied at 23 percent. If one includes the numbers of those who consider each candidate their second choice, a crucial factor in a caucus where voters in each precinct will wind up consolidating behind the leaders as delegates are chosen, shows Carson and Trump tied at 32 percent in the Register poll and Carson with a 35-32 percent lead over Trump in the Monmouth poll.
That’s great news for Carson, but the two polls are also consistent in that they both show that the non-politicians in the race: Trump, Carson and Carly Fiorina are all gaining ground. The only officeholder to place in the top four in either poll is Senator Ted Cruz, a man who has spent his time in the Senate acting as if his goal was to blow the place up rather than to work with his colleagues. The rest of an impressive field is all in single digits including Scott Walker, who was once assumed to be a lock to do well in Iowa.
But perhaps the most shocking numbers have to do with Trump’s favorability. When the Register polled voters on this subject in May, he was deep under water with 68 percent regarding him unfavorably and only 26 percent favorably. But by August 15, he had completely turned this around with a 61-35 percent favorable to unfavorable ratio. Monmouth shows a similar, albeit less dramatic, uptick in his favorability. Considering that he did this while offending large portions of the nation with a series of wild charges and insults against a variety of targets (war heroes, media personalities, and Mexicans), this is nothing short of amazing. It also cuts the legs out from those of us (including me) that have assumed that the more they learn about the Donald, the less they’ll like him.
It’s possible to interpret the movement in Carson’s direction as a sign that Trump is fading. It’s also possible to see it as an indication that the polls are volatile and that, as they did in late 2011, there will be surges for a variety of candidates, who will each have their moment until the voters settle down and make choose a responsible candidate for president.
That may be what will ultimately happen. The presidency is not an entry-level job for someone entering public life, and perhaps even conservatives who have a crush on the Donald or Dr. Carson will soon think better of it.
But it is just as likely that a critical mass of voters are sending the chattering classes a populist message they don’t want to hear. The willingness of so many Americans to embrace the “I’m mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore” spirit of Trumpism is disturbing in and of itself. But you don’t have to be a pundit, pollster or political expert to discern the disdain for professional politicians and establishment figures in these polls. Trump, Carson, and Fiorina may not have much in common, but they are all political outsiders who have never held political office. Throw in Cruz to that mix — a professional politician whose purpose is to make the lives of professional politicians miserable — and you get an interesting result. The combined total of the quartet in the Register polls is 54 percent. In the Monmouth survey, they get 65 percent. Those figures are even more impressive when you throw in second choices.
The point is the revulsion against conventional politicians, whether they are tied to political dynasties like Jeb Bush or are dynamic relative newcomers like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, seems to be clear. Ponnuru may be right about the voters repenting this sentiment later on in the process. But it would be foolish for anyone in the GOP, or the Democrats for that matter, to think these numbers are meaningless. The fact that someone like Trump could wear well on growing numbers of voters tells us something about how entertaining his candidacy has been. But it also demonstrates that he is giving a lot of people an opportunity to vent their frustration and anger at the political system. Anyone who thinks that anger is going to disappear by the time the snow starts falling in Iowa may be very disappointed next February.