Last week, the American media appeared to accept a prospect that, for weeks, seemed too fantastical even to consider:
Donald Trump is a serious candidate for president.
Trump, it seems, was not made of Teflon, but chain mail.
So now the mainstream media are starting to take him seriously. The Washington Post treated his rally in Mobile, Ala., Friday not as the latest episode of “The Apprentice: Presidential Edition,” but as a serious piece of political strategy. Was Trump putting down a marker for the crucial early Southern primaries? The New York Times ran an article titled, “Why Donald Trump Won’t Fold.”
Even the Sunday morning news pundits chimed in, with Republican strategist Charlie Black telling NBC that Trump is “here to stay for a while.”
That is no small victory. Against virtually all predictions, Trump has made himself a legitimate voice in the presidential race.
Now comes the hard part.
Just as the polls have given Trump’s campaign a legitimacy that the press and Republican establishment have been loath to concede, they also could be double-edged.
They have shown that the deeply disaffected, antiestablishment faction of conservatives that Trump has rallied is a minority of the Republican Party, much less the nation. The New York Times analysis, for example, suggests that polls are slightly overestimating Trump’s support among voters who typically participate in Republican primaries and caucuses.
So after two months of breathless wonder at Donald Trump’s apparent defiance of political gravity, the campaign is now coming back to essentials: Trump enjoys solid support among a significant minority of Republican voters. Either he must expand this base of support or he will remain locked where he is now – important enough to make waves but unable to win the nomination.
For Trump, being covered just like every other candidate could be the worst thing to happen to his campaign – or a breakthrough. At this topsy-turvy early stage, it’s hard to know which of the old political rules still apply.
Trump’s momentum appears to be coming precisely because he is seen to be unlike any other candidate. The array of comments by Trump supporters collected by The Atlantic are broad, but most carry the scent of exasperation with politics-as-usual. Other politicians are either too timid or too beholden to certain groups to run the country well. Trump is a bare-knuckled antidote.
And as someone whose straight-talking persona has been honed on television over years, new statements – as outrageous as they might be by conventional political standards – merely confirm that Trump is who he always said he was.
But has the persona of the grenade-throwing outsider already reached its ceiling? How does Trump broaden his base without losing the visceral support he now has?
For his part, Mr. Black, the pundit on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said Trump simply isn’t presidential material. “He’s not suited to be president, and he will not be president.”
With the media accepting that Trump is around for at least a while, the focus will shift to his record, which is fairly liberal, and his policy prescriptions, which are thin at this point. The honeymoon will fade, the thinking goes.
But there is no denying the remarkable progress Trump has made in two months.
In June, the FiveThirtyEight blog said Trump was not a viable candidate because his net favorability rating (favorability minus unfavorability) was the worst of any of 106 presidential candidates at that point in the campaign since 1980. In May, an ABC News/Washington Post poll had his net favorability among Republicans at minus 49 points (16 percent favorable, 65 percent unfavorable).
Now, that has flipped. A July ABC News/Washington Post poll showed his net favorability among Republicans at plus 17 (57 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable), with a more recent CNN poll last week showing similar numbers.
And the New York Times analysis suggests that Trump has made inroads with all stripes of Republicans, from evangelicals to moderates to the college-educated. The next step is to turn those inroads into solid advantages.
The conventional wisdom is that, as the field thins and primaries progress, voting Republicans will gravitate more toward mainstream candidates. But at this point, Jeb Bush’s unfavorability ratings are rising – from 34 percent in July to 42 percent now, according to CNN. And the same poll puts antiestablishment candidate Ben Carson at No. 3 in the Republican field with 9 percent support, suggesting there might be room for Trump’s insurgent campaign to grow.
At some point, this campaign might well start following conventional political wisdom. At some point, voters might well grow tired of Trump. At some point, the opposition of the establishment could well take its toll. But at this point, there are few signs to suggest those moments are near.