Why is 'Teflon' Trump still so popular?

He insults Mexicans, Sen. John McCain, and women, but 'bulletproof' Donald Trump still tops polls. Why?

Rebecca Cook/Reuters
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump gives the keynote speech at the Republican Party Lincoln Day event in Birch Run, Michigan, August 11, 2015.

What will it take for Donald Trump to lose his Teflon coating?

When Trump called Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "criminals" in his campaign kickoff, analysts predicted his campaign would be over before it began – but he was just getting started.

When he insulted John McCain's military record, analysts said he went too far – but he kept climbing in the polls.

When he was asked in the first GOP debate about calling women he doesn't like "fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals," he responded with, "Only Rosie O'Donnell!" –and the audience didn't boo or even remain silent, they laughed. 

It's no wonder they call him "Teflon Trump."

In month three of his surprise campaign, the billionaire businessman continues to exceed expectations in the polls, surviving gaffes that would extinguish any other politician. Following the first debate, which many thought would reveal Mr. Trump's lack of experience, early polls suggest his support remains virtually unchanged. He still leads the Republican pack with 23 percent support, according to an NBC News Online poll.

One of Trump's own staffers has called him "bulletproof."

If Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is a self-proclaimed "different kind of Republican," Trump is a separate breed of candidate, one who appears impervious to rules, gaffes, and scandal. Trump doesn't just survive his off-color comments, he feeds off of the shock and disdain they incite – and thrives.

How can a modern-day candidate insult one key voter group after another and continue to waltz his way up the polls? Here are three reasons why:

It fits his strongman persona

Like Andrew Jackson or former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Trump uses his bluster to project a persona of strength and confidence, says Meg Mott, a professor of politics and gender studies at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt.  

"In the Spanish-speaking world, this type of leader is known as a Caudillo, the man on horseback who takes out the bad guys and leads his people to safety. He's rough and he doesn't care about fine things like legal rights, but that very roughness means he can get things done," says Professor Mott.

Trump acts supremely confident at a time when many Americans are anything but.

In an era in which government and its leaders appear to be increasingly dysfunctional, Americans appreciate a sense of order and authority, adds Jeff Polet, an associate professor of political science at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

"Americans seem to think our politics and economy are fairly chaotic," he says. "They want someone who can step in and cut through the complexity and bring order to chaos."

For 23 percent of Republican voters, that someone is Trump.

He leverages American fears and anxieties

According to a Gallup poll earlier this year, Americans name the government as the most important problem in the US. In second and third place are the economy and jobs.

Trump knows this. His rhetoric is a product of post-9/11 and post-recession anxiety, says Mott.

"Trump’s core message is that government and its leaders are dysfunctional and this taps into historically high levels of dissatisfaction in government," adds David McLennan, a visiting professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.

"Trump’s status as a true outsider and his ability to attack politicians, even Republicans, as 'idiots,' or make bold statements about how he would deal with China, plays into the frustration many Americans feel about America’s inability to deal with domestic and foreign issues," he says.

When Trump makes inflammatory remarks about illegal immigration, for example, he is appealing to working class nervousness about job stability. His success in business and real estate make him an aspirational candidate of sorts, who points to his own success as proof that he can bring Americans success.

His lack of policy detail and political correctness is beside the point, adds Professor McLennan.

"People seemed unconcerned about Trump’s lack of detail on many issues or even his seeming inconsistencies on issues like immigration," he says. "They are more attracted to the perception of Trump as a strong person of accomplishment."

Gaffes and insults show he's not scripted

"When you live in an age when where everything a politician says is focus-group-tested and carefully crafted and managed, with consultants telling you what to say and what not to say...someone who says something different – even if it's objectionable and stupid – is going to sound wise or at least interesting by comparison," says Professor Polet. 

With trust in government and its leaders at historic lows and an American public increasingly suspicious of politicians, a frank, outspoken candidate who is beholden to no one and genuinely doesn't care what people think is refreshing, he adds. In a sense, Trump is a maverick candidate like Ross Perot or Sarah Palin, and he uses his outrageousness to project his outside-of-the-beltway insouciance.

"Engaging these gaffes doesn't hurt him," says Polet. "There's something refreshing about that."

The allure of Trump?

As Polet says, "It's not politics as usual."

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled Mr. McLennan's name.]

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