Poll finds Trump 'most electable Republican for 2016.' Really?

Two recent polls list the brash candidate with no political experience as the most electable Republican in the 2016 general election.

Steve Helber/AP
Supporters of Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump wave signs at a rally in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015

Donald Trump doesn't just defy the laws of political gravity. He rewrites them.

That's according to two recent polls that list the brash, outspoken, surprise candidate as the most electable Republican in the 2016 general election.

A whopping 47 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers in Nevada said Mr. Trump has the best chance of winning the general election next November, according to a new CNN/ORC poll out Wednesday.

By contrast, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has tried to brand himself as "Mr. Electable," is seen as the party's best chance by just 7 percent of Nevada voters.

These findings echo those of a Sept. 15 New York Times/CBS News Poll that found that 39 percent of Republican primary and caucus voters viewed Trump as their best shot at winning the presidency.

This, despite Trump having spent the first months of his campaign describing Mexican immigrants as "killers" and "rapists;" mocking the war record of POW Sen. John McCain; picking a fight with one of Fox News's most popular anchors, Megyn Kelly; attacking contender Carly Fiorina for her looks; and, most recently, flunking a foreign policy pop quiz.

"Despite many divisive comments and a nontraditional campaign style, Trump's popularity among the key Republican constituent groups – evangelicals, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and moderates – has transformed him from a political novelty to a legitimate contender for the nomination," says David McLennan, a professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC. 

One reason why: his supporters just don't seem to care about Trump's outrageous comments. More than 80 percent of supporters say they're going to stay with Trump no matter what they learn about him, according to Republican strategist Frank Luntz, on Thursday's CBS This Morning.

What's behind Trump's apparent indestructibility?

Voters still baffled by Trump's popularity are missing the point, says Professor McLennan. For his supporters, Trump's appeal is more about style than substance.

"The 2016 election appears to be one about presidential leadership, rather than policy issues. Republican voters are less concerned about the details of Trump's tax plan than about his track record of putting together deals or his promise of making the United States great again," says McLennan "It is about the voters’ perceptions of Trump as a leader rather than the details of his policy positions, or even the political positions he has held in the past."

It's a Trumpian secret the billionaire reality TV star alluded to back in the late 1980s. "I play to people's fantasies," he wrote in his '80s bestseller, "The Art of the Deal." "I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion."

Effective, indeed. Trump now enjoys 38 percent support in Nevada, and 36 percent support in South Carolina, both early primary states.

Likely Republican voters rate Trump as the best candidate to handle a range of issues, including the economy (67 percent say so in Nevada, 59 percent in South Carolina) and illegal immigration (55 percent in Nevada and 51 percent in South Carolina).

Tellingly, about 6 in 10 likely voters in each state say Trump is the candidate most likely to change the way things work in Washington.

Just 16 percent of Republicans said they feel like they're represented in Washington, according to the poll. Those that don't, support Trump by a large margin – 24 percent, compared to 13 percent for Governor Bush and single digits for the rest of the Republican field.

"People distrust Washington and are very unhappy with both sides of the aisle," says Harry Wilson, a professor of public affairs at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. "They also respond to politicians who actually say what they think – a novel concept in American politics. Trump’s appeal is much less on the issues than it is on style."

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