Donald Trump is a legitimate threat: Democrats must stop being in denial about the billionaire's popularity

While a Trump win in November is unlikely, focus groups show Democrats better take him more seriously — and now

By Sean Illing
May 12, 2016 1:58PM (UTC)
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Donald Trump (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Serious people agree that Donald Trump isn't fit for the presidency. The reasons are so obvious that they scarcely need elaborating. But it's a mistake to think he can't win in November. However disturbing, Trump is more popular than we'd like to believe.

A recent NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, for instance, had Trump reaching 50 percent approval for the first time since the poll began tracking last December. And the exit polls from Trump's string of primary victories two weeks ago show that there are plenty of xenophobic white people who support his odious positions on immigration and terrorism. His proposed ban of Muslims, to take one example, was astonishingly popular in states as diverse as New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.


But these are Republican primary voters, not the broader electorate. Trump's numbers will be decidedly worse in a general election. They might not be as low as you'd expect, however.

A series of focus groups conducted by Democrats also revealed some worrisome signs about Trump's appeal. From a Washington Post report: “Focus groups of swing voters have picked up some warning signs for Democrats about Donald Trump's general election candidacy: While those swing voters are willing to see Trump as a risky, divisive figure, they are not yet prepared to believe the Dem argument that Trump's policy proposals would benefit the rich.”

The focus groups were held in swing states and targeted suburban and blue-collar women, both critical demographics for Democrats and Republicans alike. The takeaway here is that voters may find Trump's bombast and bigotry disgusting, but that doesn't mean they won't listen to his economic arguments, however false and delusional they may be.


This isn't terrible news for Democrats, nor is it terrific news for Republicans. It does mean that Democrats can take nothing for granted in November. It's dangerous to assume swing voters will dismiss Trump on account of his crudity. His populist rhetoric will resonate in this climate. He may be a billionaire trust funder, but Trump's braggadocio routine has a strange allure for blue collar Americans. If nothing else, it feeds the false impression that he's an independent deal-maker who can get things done in Washington.

Democrats should draw a simple lesson from this study: Don't just attack Trump's character – spend equal time dismantling his “economic con job,” as The Washington Post's Greg Sargent put it.

To be clear: A Trump win in November remains highly unlikely. Ultimately, the Republicans have an Electoral College problem, one that precedes Trump and will persist long after him. Even a much stronger candidate like Paul Ryan would have to overcome an enormous comparative disadvantage to beat a Democratic candidate in a general election.


For Trump, the odds are far worse. There's still no reason to suppose he can win in traditionally blue states. These focus group reports are cause for concern, but the fact remains: Trump is the least popular major presidential candidate in modern American history, and his negative ratings among minority voters and women will almost certainly derail his candidacy.

Still, though, these focus groups suggest that voters can divorce Trump's moral nihilism from his economic populism. The economy is doing fine, all things considered, but middle class Americans are still reeling. Trump is a false prophet delivering false promises, but Democrats would do well not to underestimate their potential appeal.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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