Three ways Donald Trump has elevated the 2016 race. Yes, really.

Donald Trump is having a significant influence by raising difficult topics and the level of public engagement in the 2016 race.

(AP Photo/John Locher, File)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Las Vegas on Oct. 8.

It took a bold accusation from Donald Trump – that George W. Bush bore responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks – to rouse rival Jeb Bush from his purported low-energy slumber and incite a full-throated defense of Bush 43, and a full-throttle attack on Mr. Trump. 

"Let's be clear: Donald Trump simply doesn't know what he's talking about," former Governor Bush wrote in an op-ed for the National Review, adding that Mr. Trump's "bluster overcompensates for a shocking lack of knowledge on the complex national-security challenges that will confront the next president."

It is a pivotal moment for Bush, who has underperformed in the polls despite high expectations, an opportunity to showcase his assertiveness and attract more interest – and it comes courtesy Trump. 

Once expected to be nothing more than an entertaining sideshow, the outspoken billionaire has instead turned out to be a critical factor in the GOP race. Call it "the Trump effect": Inadvertently or not, the reality TV star has challenged his rivals to better articulate their positions, forced uncomfortable discussions, raised awareness of the less-attractive side of politics, and, inarguably, brought far more attention to a primary race 12 months out than almost anyone else could have. 

Here's three ways how Trump has elevated the GOP race. 

1. Trump forced a discussion on immigration. 

When Trump uttered his first set of controversial comments (in his campaign launch speech), calling Mexican immigrants "killers" and "rapists," he inadvertently forced his Republican rivals to spell out their own immigration policies, far earlier than usual in an election cycle. 

The candidates naturally divided into camps siding with Trump (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz) and those against his comments (Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry), providing eye-opening insight for voters early in the race. 

"This situation with Trump presents an opportunity," Alfonso Aguilar, the director of American Principles Project's Latino Partnership told Fox News Latino. "It's a very good opportunity for candidates to distance themselves from him and say that his views don't represent that of the Republican Party." 

2. Trump revealed how big money influences politics

It was, perhaps, one of the most important and underreported moments of the first GOP debate, the two-minute exchange between Fox News moderator Brett Baier and Trump, in which the billionaire businessman pointed to his personal experience to reveal how big money influences politics. 

"I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give," Trump said in that first debate, answering a question about his political donations to Democrats. "And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me. And that’s a broken system."

Liberal magazine Counterpunch called it the "most illuminating commentary to ever cross the airwaves." 

3. Trump attracted millions of Americans to follow the 2016 race

At a time when distrust in and exasperation with Washington is at record highs, Trump has leveraged that frustration to attract more people to follow politics, watch the GOP debates, and the 2016 presidential race, for that matter.

"There is no doubt Donald Trump caused a whole lot of people to watch that debate who wouldn't have otherwise turned on the television," Senator Cruz told the Washington Examiner last month. 

More than 24 million viewers tuned in to the first GOP debate on Fox News – many, presumably, to watch Trump's performance. It was the highest-rated presidential primary debate ever and among the most-viewed events in cable TV history. The second debate on CNN was down just slightly, with 23 million viewers. Without him, it's likely that about half that number would have tuned in. (By comparison, 15.3 million viewers tuned in for the first Democratic debate on CNN.)

More than a year ahead of the actual election, it's safe to say Trump has generated far more interest in the 2016 race than almost anyone else could. 

And then, there's this observation: Trump simply makes the other candidates look good. 

As the Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib put it, "Chances are high that, eventually, the Donald phenomenon will increase voters’ appreciation for serious candidates with serious things to say."

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