With less than a week left before the Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump appears to be stronger than ever.
Some 41 percent of Republican voters nationwide back the billionaire, more than double the support of his nearest competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, according to a new CNN/ORC poll.
What's more, 56 percent of registered voters – and 68 percent of Republican voters – think Mr. Trump will win the Republican nomination.
No GOP candidate who is not an incumbent has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire, potentially setting Trump up for an unprecedented start.
"If he wins Iowa, he's on a roll, and I think the dominoes start to fall," political analyst Matthew Dowd told ABC's "Good Morning America."
Why is Trump likely to win Iowa, and just possibly, the nomination?
The Republican establishment is coalescing around him
Trump, an outsider with no political experience, has already done the politically impossible, maintain his place atop the Republican field for six straight months, which is why "Republican voters, even those who initially had questions about his fitness as a candidate, now see him as the inevitable nominee," says David McLennan, a visiting professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
Notably, that includes the party elite, folks like Bob Dole, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, Rupert Murdoch, Rudy Giuliani, and Rep. Peter King, all of whom have suggested they are warming to Trump.
The Wall Street Journal, which long criticized Trump, has now reversed course. “Mr. Trump is a better politician than we ever imagined, and he is becoming a better candidate,” the Journal wrote in its editorial last week.
Republican donors are capitulating to Trump, according to reports.
Trump, not surprisingly, isn't shy to point it out.
“I have received so many phone calls from people that you would call ‘establishment,’ from people — generally speaking, conservatives, Republicans — that want to come onto our team," Trump told reporters in Las Vegas last Thursday.
Compared to Cruz, Trump is the lesser of two evils
At this point, the race is coming down to Trump and Sen. Cruz, and many in the party dislike Cruz enough to support Trump.
"Neither one is the preferred choice ... but the preference between those two is for Donald Trump," says Nick Clark, assistant professor of political science at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Penn.
"While there is substantial uncertainly around Trump, I think a wide perception is that Cruz has and will continue to insult and slander members of the party in order to advance his own career interests," Prof. Clark adds. "So, while few are outright endorsing Trump, many have made efforts to help his case against Cruz."
In other words, it's more about blocking Cruz, who has made his enemies for reasons both personal and political.
"Ted Cruz is so disliked by his own party that it's leading serious people to do things that they wouldn't otherwise do," says Chris Ellis, an associate professor of political science at Bucknell University.
“Trump says things that drive you up the wall — he says he doesn’t like guys who get captured and that he’ll make Mexico pay for the wall — but he’s not mean. Cruz is mean,” a senior Republican senator told The Hill.
Strategically, party leaders are concerned that Cruz, who often bashes his colleagues for not being conservative enough, could alienate voters with his ultra-conservatism. Party leaders see Trump as the more pragmatic choice.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad went so far as to say he wanted to see Cruz beaten in the Iowa caucuses.
“If it came down to Trump or Cruz, there is no question I’d vote for Trump,” former New York mayor and 2008 presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, said. “As a party, we’d have a better chance of winning with him, and I think a lot of Republicans look at it that way.”
Trump is malleable
"Should we back the guy who wants to be liked and doesn't really care that much about policy specifics, or should we back the guy who doesn't care what we think and is adamant about getting his way to the point of encouraging a politically futile government shutdown in 2013?" as The Washington Post's Philip Bump put it. "Not a tough call."
In other words, Trump is pliable, willing to be molded as needed to continue winning. The famous deal-maker himself has caught on to that distinction, and is using it to double-down on Cruz.
“And you know what, there’s a point at which, let’s get to be a little bit establishment, because we gotta get things done, folks, OK?” Trump told supporters at a Las Vegas campaign stop. “Believe me, don’t worry, we’re gonna get such great deals, but at a certain point, you can’t be so strident, you can’t not get along, we gotta get along with people.”
He echoed that pitch at an Iowa campaign speech this week.
“I think I’ll get along great with a lot of people. Before I was doing this, I got along with the Democrats, with the Republicans, with the liberals, with the conservatives. I get along with people."
What about all that divisive stuff Trump has said, about deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and banning all Muslims?
He doesn't mean it, his new backers say.
“In the middle of the campaign, a lot of people say things that they think are going to help them get elected," one Republican donor told Bloomberg News.
“With Trump, hey, it’s just a deal,” Republican strategist Alex Castellanos told The Washington Post. “The primary’s one deal, that’s done. If he were to be the nominee, the next deal’s a general [election]. You can see him saying, ‘We had to do what we had to do to win the primary, but now’s the general, and we’ve got to beat Hillary.’ You can see him pivot on a dime."
If Trump were to go on to capture the party's nomination, the fallout may be significant.
"The only thing more likely to devastate the Republican Party and the conservative movement than a Trump wipeout in November would be a Trump victory. Either way, he’d cement the Republican Party’s long-term demographic problems and bind conservatism to bigotry and nativism," writes The Washington Post's Dana Milbank.
The choice between Trump and Cruz "is like being shot or poisoned – what does it really matter?" South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham recently said.
That said, all this speculation about Trump's path to a general election is just that – speculation, says Adam Schiffer, a professor of political science at Texas Christian University.
"The media obsession with the minute, day-to-day contours of the pre-Iowa horse race overlooks an important fact: nothing tangible has happened yet in the delegate race," he says. "Perceptions of surges, declines, and surprising endurance are all driven by the same flimsy indicator, polling. But primaries are tough to poll, and primary electorates can be fickle, so it's all guesswork anyhow."