National and regional polls—by the Washington Post/ABC, USA Today/ Suffolk University, Monmouth University and Public Policy Polling—find Trump's rise has followed his attacks on undocumented immigrants, especially from Mexico, as he's called for tighter border controls.
“Mexico—they’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us at the border,” he said at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, last weekend to a nearly all-white audience. “We’ll take our country back.”
Trump is now hovering around 11 percent in RealClearPolitics.com’s nationwide polling average—although the USA Today poll put his support among GOP primary voters at 17 percent. More tellingly, the Washington Post/ABC and Monmouth University polls found his popularity has flipped among Republican voters since May. The Post said “57% of Republican primary voters had a favorable view of Trump, compare[d]… with The Post’s May poll, which showed that only 16%... held a favorable view.”
The Monmouth poll was more revealing, finding that Trump’s biggest boost came from the GOP's Tea Party wing. “He has also made an incredible surge [since June] among the Tea Party supporters – flipping his decidedly net negative 20% to 55% rating with this group to a decidedly positive 56% favorable to 26% unfavorable rating now,” it reported.
“It looks like Tea Party voters are really responding to Trump’s aggressive illegal immigrant message,” said Patrick Murray, Monmouth University Polling Institute director.
Trump's surge has upended the Republican presidential field, where his candidacy has been viewed by pundits and party officials as more of a lark than a serious bid for the White House. However, it appears that Trump's strident focus on illegal immigration has tapped into an issue that's very much on likely Republican voters' minds.
USA Today’s nationwide poll, with more than a third of respondents from the “South,” found that voters’ top four issues were economic inequality (62.10%), immigration (60.50%), Obamacare (60.40%) and deploying more troops to fight ISIS (58.50%). That underscores why Trump is moving the GOP’s far right wing with his remarks on immigration.
Still, that same USA Today poll also found that Trump was offending larger numbers of more moderate voters in both parties than apparent Trump supporters.
More than 48% said Trump’s nasty comments on “Mexican immigrants” mattered “a lot” in their vote, but only 14.80 percent said the comments were “more likely” to make them vote for him. In that poll, only 11.50% called themselves “very conservative”—which is about where Trump is hovering in national polling averages—while an additional 25.80% called themselves “conservative.”
The PPP poll, which was conducted only in North Carolina, is where a federal trial began this week over a Republican-drafted law that intentionally rolled back many voting options popular with Blacks and students. It's accompanying analysis said that Trump's surge was among the same Republicans who typically are Tea Partiers and support more restrictive voting laws.
“Trump’s really caught fire with voters on the far right,” PPP found. “Sixty-six % of ‘very conservative’ voters see him favorably to only 24% with a negative view of him. Trump is polling particularly well with younger voters (29%) and men (20%).”
However, outside of far right circles, there is still a wide perception that Trump is not in the race to win. Thirty-nine percent of Monmouth's respondents "named Donald Trump as a candidate who is in it more for the publicity.”
Because the GOP field is so crowded, only a few single-digit points can make the difference between being in the top and middle tiers. The larger question is what impact Trump will have on the race’s unfolding dynamics.
How Much Havoc Will Trump Wreak?
On Thursday, Trump released his personal financial information—saying he was worth more than $10 billion and mocking the Federal Election Commission for not designing forms for a person of his wealth. He also went to New Hampshire for more speeches.
There are plenty of reasons why pundits still dismiss Trump as a serious contender for the Republican nomination. Other extremist Republicans in recent presidential races, namely Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain in 2012, had early surges but then faded.
Another reason is Trump’s speeches are not presidential material. In Arizona, his 70-minute speech was divided into bragging about his competence and deal-making prowess, and swiping at politicians who lack his common sense (Arizona Sen. John McCain), or leadership skill (President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush), and bad mouthing undocumented people and the press. The only other issues he mentioned were replacing Obamacare, expanding the military, taking care of veterans and going after ISIS. “I would take them out so fast,” he boasted, saying how much he loves the military.
But because the GOP field is so crowded, it’s likely that Trump will be around for a while—possibly bringing his blunt attacks to the party’s five presidential debates this year. He is likely to accuse Jeb Bush of dithering on his brother’s invasion of Iraq (Trump’s line of attack in Phoenix) or calling out other governors running as inept managers. In Phoenix, Trump cited Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was a partner at the Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers, before it failed in 2008 and “almost took down the world.”
The open question is how much damage can Trump do to the GOP brand and the nominating process—including possibly splintering the field enough to push the party into a brokered convention, where no nominee has enough delegates to win. That scenario is a possibility, as there are many candidates with billionaire backers to keep them going past the earliest states.
Until the crowded GOP field begins to thin, it is likely that Trump and his newfound far-right base may keep him in the top tier of candidates, according to ongoing polls where the front-runners have yet to crack 20 percent. In the meantime, Trump is likely to remind Americans that there is a dark underbelly to the Republican Party.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).