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At every step of his unlikely presidential campaign, the businessman’s detractors have predicted his downfall. Controversies created by his own words, at Thursday night’s GOP debate in Cleveland and elsewhere, have routinely brought out doomsayers.
Yet none of it has stuck to him or dragged him down to Earth in the polls. Comments that would likely have been fatal for other candidates — like denigrating the war record of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Vietnam — have had virtually no negative effect.
Strategists in both parties are scratching their heads and wondering how long it all can last.
Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa, suggested Trump’s secret is that he has no secrets. He has been a colorful, often-outrageous and exceedingly public figure for decades.
“There really isn’t anything that surprises me concerning Donald Trump,” Robinson said. “We talk about transparency in politics, but we know all of Donald Trump’s faults. If any of this came out about any other candidate, we would be shocked by it. But Donald Trump has led his entire life on the front pages of the tabloids, so the same rules don’t necessarily apply to him.”
It is nearly impossible to imagine Trump’s closest rivals in the polls, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, describing women they dislike as fat pigs, dogs or slobs. And it is even less likely that, if questioned about doing so in a televised debate, they would shoot back, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”
Yet that response by Trump was the most memorable and discussed moment of Thursday’s debate. And even the deluge of negative commentary that it provoked may not affect a candidate who presents himself as a populist who welcomes the disdain of political and media elites.
There may be limits to such a provocative approach. But what are they? On Friday, Trump escalated his feud with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who had asked the question about his language toward women. Trump told CNN's Don Lemon that Kelly had quizzed him at the debate as if she had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."
Will that prove to be a turning point or yet another squall to which Trump-inclined voters give a shrug of their collective shoulders?
In a statement released Saturday morning, the Trump campaign said that the businessman had been referring to Kelly's nose, adding, "Only a deviant would think anything else."
The latest Kelly incident also resulted in the mogul's invitation to speak at the conservative RedState Gathering being rescinded just hours before he was due to appear. But the Saturday statement from the Trump camp shot back, calling RedState supremo Erick Erickson "a total loser." It also asserted that Erickson "has a history of supporting establishment losers in failed campaigns, so it is an honor to be uninvited from his event."
Trump’s courting of controversy has created reams of free publicity during his campaign, just as it has for much of his life. And, in doing so, he has earned the envy of political rivals.
Asked about Trump’s poll ratings on “CBS This Morning” before the debate Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) responded, “Well, he had a little bit of help. Y’all covered him with about a billion dollars worth of news media.”
Some skeptics insist Trump will eventually be exposed for a lack of substance behind the style.
“The only campaign Trump is running is a PR campaign,” said Jamie Burnett, a longtime GOP strategist in New Hampshire.
Burnett, who is not working with any campaign this year but personally favors Bush, added that the Trump campaign “hasn’t demonstrated any infrastructure.”
Trump aides have pushed back against those charges before, noting that the campaign has paid staff in several early-voting states. But the larger point is that the vulnerabilities noted by political professionals do not seem to hurt Trump. Infrastructure or not, he currently sits atop the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average in both Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as nationwide.
All of this has happened in defiance of numerous pearls of Beltway wisdom. Among the predictions Trump has disproved? That he would not get into the race at all, only flirting with the idea as he had done in 1988, 2000, 2004 and 2012. That comments at his campaign launch about Mexico sending “rapists” to the United States would doom him. That his disparagement of McCain as “not a war hero” was — absolutely definitely — a step too far. That he would implode as soon as the TV cameras started rolling for the first debate.
None of it has happened, though some say they do expect to see some poll slippage after Trump’s refusal, during the debate, to rule out a third-party run.
Washington insiders of any ideological stripe who believe Trump will be the GOP nominee are rarer than hen's teeth. But strategists increasingly argue that he will be brought down not by a single implosion or an especially adroit attack from a rival, but by math.
Their argument is that Trump’s support, in absolute terms, is modest. He currently draws the backing of 24.3 percent of Republicans in the RCP national average. As the 17-candidate field narrows over time, the support from those who fade or drop out entirely might accrue to other contenders.
Trump — who fans and critics alike agree is a one-off figure — may be less likely to draw those voters, especially when several polls show that around one-third of all Republicans view him unfavorably.
“He is certainly speaking to a part of the electorate but I’m not sure he is even speaking to the majority of the Republican electorate,” said Mo Elleithee, a one-time Democratic strategist and the executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.
“If Chris Christie drops out, I’m not sure his support goes to Donald Trump. If Rand Paul drops out, I’m not sure his support goes to Donald Trump.”
Republican strategists echo that critique.
“How long do people like Rick Perry and Ted Cruz hold on to a few percent support?” Burnett pondered. “Does Trump have a lot of room to grow? I don’t think so. But I think Walker or Bush or [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio have a lot of room to grow.”
Still others hold out hope that Trump might, in the end, deliver too deep a self-inflicted wound for even him to recover from.
“Some other candidate isn’t going to blow Donald Trump out of the water,” said Craig Robinson. “The only one who is going to take Donald Trump out of the water is Donald Trump.”
This story was updated at 10:42 a.m.
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