Donald Trump soars to big poll lead. What's going on?

Trump is the choice of 24 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters, according to the Post/ABC numbers.

Nati Harnik/AP
Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul Donald Trump, speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, Saturday.

Donald Trump’s still going up. His poll numbers keep rising: A new Washington Post/ABC News survey shows The Donald now leads the rest of the GOP presidential field by a healthy margin.

Trump’s the choice of 24 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters, according to the Post/ABC numbers. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is second with 13 percent. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is third with 12 percent.

What’s going on? Mr. Trump hands out insults like Santa dispensing presents on Christmas Eve. Is a quarter of the GOP electorate really happy with a guy who’s able to offend Hispanics, John McCain, Mr. Bush and his wife, Univision, NBC, and last year’s Miss Universe, without breaking a sweat?

Maybe they are. His supporters say they’re tired of politicians who are afraid of offending. Trump channels their anger and that’s what they like.

“Trump’s partisans are disappointed. But they’re disappointed in McCain, the media and the party establishment, not Trump,” write Politico’s Ben Schreckinger, Cate Martel, and Daniel Strauss.

Or maybe they aren’t. The new WaPo poll was conducted from last Thursday through Sunday. Trump’s numbers took a dive on the last day, perhaps due to the uproar over his charge that Senator McCain isn’t a war hero, because he was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese.

“How long the Trump surge lasts is an open question,” writes ABC’s Gary Langer.

Perhaps Trump’s poll triumph is all about the coverage. That’s what George Washington University political scientist John Sides writes in The Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post.

Trump’s campaign announcement generated a huge increase in media mentions, Mr. Sides shows. The day before Trump said he’d run for president, he was mentioned in about 4 percent of the coverage of all GOP candidates. The day after, the figure spiked to 30 percent.

And that’s where it has stayed. He has consistently generated between 20 and 30 percent of the daily GOP presidential news.

“Has this attention to Trump driven his poll numbers? Almost certainly,” writes Sides.

It’s also possible the flood of news coverage is only one aspect of a complicated interest/coverage/candidate response feedback loop.

Any political reporter will tell you that one big reason they write Trump stories is because people want to read them. Is that because they have an intrinsic interest, or because they’ve read other stories? Which came first, the chicken or the egg crossing the road to get away from Colonel Sanders?

Given current polling data, it’s hard to figure out whether interest in Trump leads or lags the coverage, according to FiveThirtyEight data maven Nate Silver.  But a fancy massage of the numbers indicates that it’s both, according to Mr. Silver. That makes sense: reporters write Trump stories, discover they produce lots of page views, and then they write more. [ED Note: until we make you stop].

“This creates the possibility of a feedback loop. Some event sparks a news story about a candidate, which triggers more public attention, which encourages yet more media attention – and so on,” writes Silver.

The difference with Trump is that he’s media-savvy enough to actually make this hamster wheel spin faster by himself. That’s Silver’s hypothesis. Trump feeds more and more insults and outrage into the coverage, generating more interest. He is a troll, in modern Internet parlance.

“Trump has taken trolling to the next level by being willing to offend members of his own party,” writes Silver. “Ordinarily, this would be a counterproductive strategy. In a 16-candidate field, however, you can be in first place with 15 to 20 percent of the vote – even if the other 80 to 85 percent of voters hate your guts.”

There should be limits here. Eventually the troll goes too far and offends even supporters. Or other candidates drop out and their voters coalesce around Trump rivals. Or Trump tires of the whole thing and resurrects “Celebrity Apprentice.”

There should be limits. Right?

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