For months now, the assumption in the mainstream press has been that the Donald Trump candidacy is just a phase for Republican primary voters, and that after they spent the pre-primary season expressing themselves, they would settle down and vote for someone who actually stands a chance running against Hillary Clinton, such as a Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio. Since July, there have been dozens of prominent pundits declaring that Trump-mania was about to wind down so the real race can begin, and, hilariously, those predictions continue to fail and Trump continues to dominate the polls.
To be entirely fair, there is good reason to believe that Trump is going to flame out and a party standard-bearer will step in. After all, that's what happened in the 2012 primary season, as voters expressed their id by backing candidates like Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich before settling down and running the only guy who had half a chance against Obama, Mitt Romney. History shows that as much as Republican primary voters like to imagine they're pissing off the liberals, they also blanch and remember that they would like even more to have a reasonable shot at the White House. Under the circumstances, the Trump flameout isn't an unreasonable prediction.
But now there's new ABC News/Washington Post polling data that complicates the picture tremendously. The data shows not just that Republican voters like Trump, but that they believe he has a better chance of winning the general election than Clinton. It's not even a close race.
Clearly, Republican voters are delusional. It's hard to imagine any scenario where Trump doesn't lose spectacularly against Clinton. Consider how much Romney's chances were hurt by his indelicate "47 percent" comment. And that was mild compared to Trump's relentless hateful bleating about Mexicans, his unsubtle racism regarding President Obama, and his ugly attitudes about women that will likely not be contained for the many months of running against a woman. Democrats win by getting out the vote, and almost nothing will encourage women and people of color to stampede to the polls more than pulling the lever against Donald Trump.
But clearly, Republican primary voters don't see this. Which calls into question the hope that they will wake up and start supporting someone more electable before it's too late for their party.
Of course, this is just one poll and the first primaries are months away. It's entirely possible that voters are still in the pissing-off-the-liberals phase and haven't even started to consider boring issues like nominating someone who can run a credible general election campaign.
That said, it's always wise to remember that the conservative movement is prone to fantasy and wishful thinking. Nearly all the tenets of 21st century conservative ideology are built on a pile of lies, from the conspiracy theories around Benghazi to delusions of the anti-choice movement to the widespread belief that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. to Mitt Romney's false assertion that half the country simply sits around on their asses being supported by the other half. It's not surprising that this tendency to confuse what they wish was true with what is true would start to infect even their ability to correctly assess their actual chances of winning elections.
The echo chamber effect is probably a factor here, as well. Americans aren't just politically polarized, but geographically as well. If you live in a suburban or rural bubble where everyone around you is also an angry white conservative, it's a lot easier to believe in the "silent majority", a popular conservative myth that holds that most Americans are aggrieved white people that resent racial diversity but are just too afraid to say it. Trump himself likes to tout this myth, flattering his followers into believing that the majority of Americans agree with them, but are just too cowed by the liberal P.C. police to say so out loud. Tell yourself this long and hard enough, and you can start to imagine that, in the privacy of the ballot box where no P.C. police will get to you, Americans will choose Trump.
And hey, never say never. Richard Nixon coasted into office on the power of the "silent majority" myth, after all. But this is a very different country than it was back then, the kind of country that could do what was unthinkable in Nixon's heyday, which is electing a black man named Obama to the White House. It's hard to imagine that Trump has any chance of beating Clinton. It's certainly such long odds that only a fool would bet on it. But, if these poll numbers are any indication, that kind of foolishness has the voters in its grip and may very well lead to a Donald Trump nomination.