Why is Donald Trump surging in early polls?

Trump's name recognition and high visibility may be the reason for his meteoric rise in national and state polls.

Dominick Reuter/Reuters
Businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to supporters during a back-yard reception in Bedford, N.H.

It's the early election surprise no one saw coming: in poll after poll, Donald Trump is surging.

The latest, a CNN/ORC national poll out Wednesday, has Mr. Trump in second place among Republicans, behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of only two Republicans with double-digit support.

The poll echoes similar polls by Fox News, Suffolk University, and Quinnipiac University, all showing Trump in second place either nationally or in select early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa.

At the very least, the poll results come as a surprise.

Trump, who has no political experience, entered the race with a hyperbolic, meandering speech at a flashy campaign event at his Trump Tower in Manhattan, that was later found to be populated with actors Trump paid to attend. The controversial speech, in which he bragged about his billions and appeared to suggest Mexican immigrants were drug dealers, rapists, and criminals, certainly caught some voters' attention, if not ire.

In fact, according to some of the same polls cited above, he is the most disliked Republican candidate currently in the race.

So why is Trump topping so many polls? What's driving his success?

Early polls have a lot to do with name recognition and timing. In a field overflowing with nearly 20 GOP candidates, Trump, who is still surging off of his unusual and memorable announcement and has one of the country's most recognized names, well, trumps the competition.

"Donald Trump has strong name recognition and the ability to self-finance his campaign indefinitely. Those qualities make him viable," says Harry Wilson, professor of public affairs and director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

"It's an extremely large, and growing, field of Republican candidates. Most Americans are, quite understandably, not fixated on the 2016 Presidential election yet. So, the name currently in the news will garner support in the short run."

Trump, with his luxury hotels and reality TV show career, is a symbol of success to many Americans. As we saw in 1992 with Ross Perot, the wealthy, wild card independent candidate who earned 19 percent of the popular vote in that year's general election, Americans love business success stories.

Trump has also leveraged his lack of political experience to boast his outsider status, a point which has attracted at least some supporters, and has positioned Trump as an alternative to Bush for anti-Jeb voters.

And as the Daily Kos pointed out, he's one-of-a-kind.

"Donald Trump, I would suggest, has one advantage that the rest of the potential candidates in the GOP field lack: there really isn't anyone in the field like him."

At the end of the day – or the race – that doesn't necessarily mean much, however.

“Everybody should calm down,” Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center, told Politico. “What you’re seeing is real in the sense that people who are paying any attention to this in the last week or so have seen Donald Trump on TV. That doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for him.”

“When you’re asking people about who they’re going to vote for in the New Hampshire primary, what you’re asking is, ‘All right, it’s months from the primary now: Who have you seen in the newspaper lately?’ And that would be Donald Trump,” Mr. Smith added.

For the brash, outspoken celebrepreneur, the early popularity in the polls won't last, adds Mr. Wilson of Roanoke College.

"Trump is likely to retain some support, but it is difficult to see him as a long-term, top-tier candidate," he says. "While he is a master at self-promotion, and obviously an astute businessperson, he is not an expert campaigner. His penchant for speaking off the cuff leads to gaffes, which result in a drop in the polls."

In addition, people will eventually start looking at some of the other candidates. 

"If we look back four years, the Republicans had several 'candidates of the week,' who rose and fell like meteors, and when the dust settled, a weakened Mitt Romney was left standing," he adds. Trump, he suggests, might be a shooting star who burns out long before 2016.

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