Is Donald Trump really the GOP frontrunner?

Donald Trump leads the Republican field, according to a new national poll. Analysts ask, is this real, or are poll respondents 'giving a stupid answer to a stupid question'?

Steve Marcus / Las Vegas Sun / Reuters
Real estate magnate and television personality Donald Trump speaks to a group of Republican organisations at the Treasure Island hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nev., on April 28. Trump said he is seriously weighing a presidential run and will make a decision soon.

Wow – is Donald Trump now really the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination? After all, that’s the conclusion of a new national poll from Rasmussen Reports.

According to the April 28 survey, developer/reality show star Trump leads among likely GOP primary voters with 19 percent support. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was the choice of 17 percent of respondents, while 15 percent opted for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich trail the field at nine percent each.

Trump led among male voters and registered Republicans, according to Rasmussen. Romney leads among females and independents who are likely to vote in a GOP primary.

First of all, for all of you commentators out there who believe the media should just ignore Trump due to what some might term his “acute blowhardia”, this is one reason he’s been getting so much coverage. It appears that a substantial slice of voters actually like him. (Yes, yes, we can debate whether he would be doing so well if the press ignored him, etc. But think how much criticism the media would come in for if it entered into some loose conspiracy of non-coverage of a political figure. And right now, he is a political figure.)

Second, this and similar polls don’t actually mean Trump is now the hair to beat for the GOP prize. As Rasmussen itself notes in its press release, at this stage of the game, polls measure fame as much as personal preference. And I think we can all agree on this: Trump is a lot more famous than, say, Tim Pawlenty. He was a top story in the New York tabloids when Governor Pawlenty was just another city council member from St. Paul.

Nineteen percent support is not particularly high, anyway. It’s a crowded field, and all it takes to stay in front is a plurality. The same Rasmussen poll showed Trump trailing Obama in a head to head matchup by 49 to 34 percent – a pretty healthy margin.

Is the poll even accurate? In the past, Rasmussen has faced some criticism due to its use of automated robo-calls to conduct surveys. And at least one well-known poling analyst has raised the question of whether polls about Trump are a little skewed because some respondents treat the whole Trump thing as a joke.

New York Times poll blogger Nate Silver notes that in a recent USA Today survey, only 43 percent of respondents said they were certain that Donald Trump was born in the US. Seven percent said they were certain he wasn’t.

Some percentage of this surprising response might well be due to the fact that those who weighed in “were giving a stupid answer to a stupid question” wrote Mr. Silver earlier this week.

And Silver goes on to speculate that there may be some element of this flippancy in general polls of Republican voters.

“The question that will determine whether Mr. Trump can remain a viable candidate is whether those voters are laughing with Mr. Trump or laughing at him,” wrote Silver.

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