Just when the Republican establishment and mainstream press began to admit that Donald Trump really can win the primary, a new poll from Quinnipiac University shows that the expected Trump flameout might not actually be a pipe dream.
Sure, Trump continues to hold a substantial lead over his opponents, up nearly 10 points over the first runner-up, a much healthier margin than he had a few weeks ago when he was in danger of slipping into second place. But if you take a closer look at the polling data, it becomes clear that the main reason for the gap is not that Trump is surging forward, but that Ben Carson has been rapidly losing support. (No surprise there. He probably wasn't really running for president anyway.) In fact, it's Marco Rubio who's now in second place, with Carson falling rapidly.
The real story here is that Rubio and Ted Cruz are steadily building support, wooing supporters away from DOA candidates like Chris Christie and Rand Paul and even getting some attention from voters who were flirting with Trump a few months ago. As I predicted a few weeks ago, Carson's losses are Cruz's gain, as they are both banking on their appeal to the Christian nut crowd. The trend lines, especially in states like Iowa, show that Carson supporters are jumping ship and falling into Cruz's waiting arms.
The reason that many pundits are dumbfounded by Trump's candidacy is they keep looking at it all wrong. The assumption is that his flameout will be precipitated by a going-too-far moment, that he's going to say something so rude about a group of people or lie so blatantly that it will be too much, and Republican voters will decamp to someone who won't do the Democrat's oppo research for free.
But it turns out that the "liberal media bias" myth is a monster than can eat up all criticism. Trump could be caught on camera sport-shooting kittens and conservatives would eagerly believe that the evil liberal media is just making it up to fit their "agenda" of making everyone gay marry through the power of fundamentalist Islam.
No, Trump's kryptonite seems to be the very thing he claims to be so good at: Winning. For a period there, Trump's front-runner status seemed immoveable and he started campaigning in the classic front-runner style by playing it safe, avoiding overtly racist or misogynist comments, even doing boring stuff like trying to convince people he has a legitimate policy platform. His debate performances became snoozefests, as he stopped acting like a carnie barker and tried to seem more presidential. As you can see from the graph at RealClearPolitics, the strategy wasn't really working. He'd go up and then down, but the clear trend was towards declining poll numbers, from his heyday when he was making menstruation jokes about Megyn Kelly of Fox News.
Then the Paris attacks happened, and Trump got an entirely predictable bump as conservatives got swept up in anti-Muslim fever.
But there's no real reason to think that will last. Americans have short attention spans, particularly the Fox News junkies that have boosted Trump so far. By the time the primary rolls around, a whole bunch of Trump lovers are going to forget that they were posting Eiffel Tower pictures on Facebook a couple months ago, and return to the regular diet of making jokes about the French being frog-eating foreign weirdoes.
If Trump starts being boring again his poll numbers will continue to slip. His candidacy feeds off the cycle where he says something offensive, media reports on it, conservatives get offended that the media would dare do such a thing, and they back him in polls to stick it to the "liberal media."
But he's quickly running out of marginalized groups he can beat on. To restart the cycle, he would need to do something like recommend locking women up until marriages can be arranged for them, because he's already played the Muslim database and the round-up-the-immigrants cards. (There's always skeet-shooting kittens. You don't know! It could work.) If he bores people, he will continue to lose support to Cruz and Rubio or, and this is important, he might not be able to turn out the vote at the primaries.
It seems to me that a big unknown here is what Trump's get-out-the-vote capabilities really are. Primary voters aren't really representative of Americans in general and they aren't even representative of people who vote in general elections. Telling a pollster you love Trump is much less of an investment than picking your ass up and going to a poll or, in the case of Iowa, actually caucusing for him.
While Trump has a much better ground game than you'd think, whether or not he can turn all that staffing and door-knocking into actual votes still feels like an open question. There's a real chance that Trump's unseriousness as a person gets reflected in his base of support — that he's going to have many people who enjoy sharing his bon mots on Twitter but can't be moved off the couch to actually vote.
This is particularly significant in light of Cruz's surge in the polls, which is built on the backs of evangelical voters, who absolutely do get off their asses to vote. People who make it to church make it to the polls. Having someone knock on your door and ask you to vote doesn't hold a candle to having your minister do the same thing. And that's Cruz's strategy —as Politico reported a couple of weeks ago, he's successfully courting evangelical leadership. It wouldn't be remotely surprising if there's a lot of churchy Republicans who currently are supporting Trump because Syrian refugees/Mexican immigrants who make a last-minute switch to Cruz because their religious leadership asked them to.
(The fact that the Planned Parenthood attack put abortion back on the center stage certainly won't hurt Cruz, either. It's gross to think that a candidate could benefit from the murder of three people, but it's making the issue of reproductive rights salient. The reaction from the right to the mass shooting was not somber-minded reflection over the evils of religious extremism, but a doubling-down of said religious extremism, Cruz could get the same F-you bump in the polls that Trump gets every time the media reports on his racist or sexist comments.)
There are still months to go, of course. Iowa hardly counts, as their winner is notoriously bad at predicting the eventual winner. A lot could happen in an election cycle mainly characterized by chaos. But that's why the narrative about Trump inevitability should be eschewed. Rubio and Cruz have a lot of time to keep amassing support and Trump really may be reaching the end of his abilities to keep us all entertained. Don't write off the less orange-y candidates quite yet.