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Why Donald Trump’s poll numbers keep going up and up

Some of our top political thinkers are trying to figure out why Trump continues to defy expectations.

Donald Trump addressing supporters in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday.
REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

A national sample CNN poll out Friday showed Donald Trump with his largest lead ever for the Republican presidential nomination, with 36 percent of the support of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, compared to 16 percent for Sen. Ted Cruz, who has recently moved past Dr. Ben Carson into second place.

It’s important to remember that this poll mushes together people from all states, including some that are caucusing or voting soon with others that have barely begun paying attention. Nate Silver, the god of political metrics, cites evidence that people in exit polls generally say that they made up their mind whom to support a month or less before Election Day.

We are now a month away from the first contest in Iowa (where polls suggest that Trump leads, but by much less than he does nationally). But in the rest of the country, most people who told those CNN pollsters that they favor Trump still haven’t really decided whom they will support when they actually have a chance to vote, or so Silver’s analysis would suggest.

Still, you gotta call Trump’s current national poll numbers a big lead. A commanding lead. Pretty much unprecedented in a field of this size.

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Earlier in the week, veteran pundit Charlie Cook promised to “eat crow … most likely deep fried” if either Trump or Carson is the eventual nominee.

It’s not that I exactly disagree with Cook, who is a hundred times better political handicapper than I am. But I do think that everyone who has made predictions of Trump’s imminent demise to date should stop pretending to know the future. According to most of them, it should’ve happened by now. And they are now starting to complain that the “laws of political gravity” have been repealed.

My own commitment to humility about knowing the future of the Trump candidacy dates back to July when Trump said that John McCain, despite enduring years of torture in Vietnam, was not a war hero. That’s the end of the Trump boom, I said to myself — although I bravely did not publish such a prediction, only quoted others making it.

(Unlike Mr. Trump, I believe in accuracy, so allow me to clarify that in the moment after saying of McCain, “he’s not a war hero,” Trump added: “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Later, when pressed, Trump denied that he had said that McCain was not a war hero but rather had said that McCain was a war hero. At the time we had not yet come to appreciate the genius of this element of the Trump “method,” which enables to him say something wrong, stupid and boorish, then say the opposite, then deny that he ever said whichever of the two statements turns out to be inconvenient.)

Needless to add, Trump rose in the polls after disparaging a U.S. soldier for being captured (and, I forgot to mention, beaten and held in solitary confinement during interrogations). Trump went on to say many other “disqualifying” things, half of which he amended afterward without acknowledging what he first said. And never, in any case of which I am aware, retracting or apologizing.

Alternative universe

In some Bizarro alternative universe that I have never visited, refusing to admit error or to correct one’s mistakes or ever, ever to apologize is what passes for the kind of strength and toughness that America needs in the Oval Office in these perilous times. My parents raised me and I tried to raise my kids to believe that owning up and apologizing for your mistakes is a kind of strength. I guess Trump would call us losers, but I can live with that.

Thomas Edsall, in his New York Times column, explored that theme with several psychiatrists and scholars of political psychology and related fields. For example, Edsall wrote:

“Trump’s opponents fail to recognize that his apparent vulnerabilities — his hubris, his narcissism, his bullying, his boisterousness — have been strengths in a primary campaign premised on defiance of political correctness, left and right.”

Joseph Burgo, a psychotherapist and author of a book on narcissism, told Edsall:

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“For many people, Trump’s braggadocio, contempt, and grandiosity come across as self-confident strength. When frightened by dangers from abroad or here at home, many people gravitate to the ‘strong man’ who promises to vanquish their fears and confusion.”

Of course, it is in some ultimate sense a matter of opinion whether McCain’s war record entitled him to the status of a “hero.” But in addition to the rudeness and disrespect that Trump shows in such matters, he also has demonstrated a serious disregard for matters of actual factual accuracy. He thrives on telling falsehoods and then showing his mettle by never backing down.

Scrutinized falsehoods

One of Trump’s latest and most scrutinized falsehoods was his claim to have personally “watched” as “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey, celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001. He has since amended this to say not in Jersey City, not thousands but some much smaller number that he can’t specify or document, not actually “watched” but saw on television, even though no one can produce any video that aired on any television anytime, anywhere showing this.

But he claims vindication anyway because he has heard from others who recall seeing something on television. And he insists that we must accept his hallucination because, according to himself, he has a “fantastic memory” and also “one of the great memories of all time,” except for the Jersey City part and the thousands part and every other part that can’t be verified but very likely could be verified if any of it were true.

Kevin Drum, who blogs for Mother Jones, has started an incomplete catalog of Trump falsehoods (Drum calls them things that Trump asserted that are “just plain wrong.”) Last I checked, he was up to 26.  

And Trump’s rise in the polls continues.

Let’s note here that candidates who led in polls taken before the first primaries have often failed to be nominated, including about six of them in the last Republican contest (for some reason, Herman Cain is the one everybody mentions, but there were several). But none of them ever dominated by as much for as long as Trump has done.

Cain led for about five minutes. Trump has now led for about five months. So we are in uncharted territory. And humility about one’s ability to know the future is highly recommended.

The Trump experience to date has also given us an updated appreciation for the level of alienation from many mainstream norms felt by a large proportion of white, non-college-educated males who make up the bulk of Trump’s supporters.

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‘Political correctness’

Many of these norms are referred to under the amorphous, sarcastic rubric of “political correctness.” Trump says things that are (or believed by many to be) sexist, racist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic. He is upbraided by liberals and the media for those comments, which he never retracts, and his poll numbers go up.

It could be (and probably is) the case that many of those who like Trump better for saying those things are themselves sexist, racist, etc. But it is also undoubtedly the case that many in this category are sick of being rebuked for saying what they think and are thrilled to have Trump demonstrate that he doesn’t give a flying (expletive deleted for reasons of political correctness) what the political-correctness police think. That’s the America they want to inhabit.

So there’s another form of the strength/toughness that’s part of his appeal, facing down the political-correctness crowd.

Then there’s the media piece — or anti-media piece — and especially anti-liberal-media piece of Trump’s appeal to his supporters, which strikes me as pretty big, and also self-enforcing.

Do a Google image search for “annoy the media” and you’ll quickly see buttons and bumper stickers urging you to “annoy the media” by re-electing President Bush, meaning the first Bush in 1992 when he lost to Bill Clinton, and to continue annoying the media by supporting Rick Santorum for the Republican nomination in 2012, and then Mitt Romney in the general and by supporting Benjamin Netanyahu for another term as prime minister of Israel and now (this one, amazingly, isn’t a bumper sticker or a button but a pair of garish red-white-and-blue earrings) by supporting “Trump 2016.”

Conservatives’ anger

Although it’s a joke, and it’s funny, it’s also serious and reflects anger of conservatives, for now at least seven presidential cycles, over what they view as liberal media bias against conservative candidates. If you are a conservative who believes in liberal media bias, it’s a lot easier to tune out information that is coming to you via the mainstream media.

Personally, in my fifth decade as a journalist, I am not in denial about the fact that most mainstream newsrooms are overwhelmingly staffed by liberals. The question of how much the norms of so-called objectivity prevent liberal bias from getting into print complicates the analysis, but conservatives are nonetheless entitled to question whether their viewpoints and candidates are treated fairly.

And they do question it. And they believe the news media are generally unfriendly to conservative candidates and values. (And, in the new cable-and-talk-radio-and-digital media world, they have many options for reinforcing and stoking their fears that they are victims of liberal bias in the media mainstream on which they no longer rely.)

But Trump and his supporters are taking this to a new level. And causing some in the media to cross lines they formerly would have respected. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recently wrote a column headlined “Donald Trump is a bigot and a racist.” In case you wonder whether that might just be a headline-writer run wild, the lede on the column is: “Let’s not mince words: Donald Trump is a bigot and a racist.” And, concerned that some might think he had crossed a line of being overly judgmental, Milbank went further, thus:

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“It might be possible to explain away any one of Trump’s outrages as a mistake or a misunderstanding. But at some point you’re not merely saying things that could be construed as bigoted: You are a bigot.”

And, in case you might wonder whether Trump’s recent statements might be a persona adopted to fit the political moment, Milbank brings up similar statements going back decades, to the famous, hideous case of the Central Park jogger.

Lastly, perhaps in order to make clear that he was doing everything he could to convince us that Trump is a bigot and a racist, the online version of the column includes a video of Milbank himself saying (surprise here), “Let’s not mince words: Donald Trump is a bigot and a racist,” and, with Milbank continuing the narration, includes video of Trump making some of most infamous recent statements, including the other most currently fashionable one of Trump mocking the physical traits of a disabled journalist.

The gatekeepers

To me, this surpasses the familiar media role of “gatekeeping” or “vetting” of candidates. It speaks to me almost of desperation. But, OK, Milbank is a liberal, so the Trump supporters can easily explain him away. Yet even the conservative columnist Ross Douthat of the New York Times had a column last week headlined: “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” OK, so at least (unlike Milbank) Douthat might be raising a question rather than providing an answer. Still, the column includes this paragraph:

“Whether or not we want to call Trump a fascist outright, then, it seems fair to say that he’s closer to the ‘proto-fascist’ zone on the political spectrum than either the average American conservative or his recent predecessors in right-wing populism.”

True, Milbank and Douthat are columnists who have explicit permission to express their views (although I would say that many columnists are showing an unusual level of vitriol in their Trump columnizing).

But reporters, who have traditionally observed the norms of journalistic objectivity and facticity, also seem to be struggling to understand the power of Trump’s appeal notwithstanding all the factual problems with the things he says. If a candidate consistently makes factual errors, and the errors are dutifully documented by the fact-checking media, and you keep making new ones, your poll numbers should not keep going up.

In his Pressthink blog, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen noted a recurring metaphor among journalists that the Trump phenomenon suggests that “the laws of political gravity” no longer apply.

Rosen comes up with an impressive number of pieces that actually use the phrase “laws of political gravity” to describe what should or will happen but hasn’t happened to Trump. His conclusion is that such laws were not laws at all. In the past, when the “laws” were violated it was only the belief that facts and non-facts and gaffes and political-correctness matters that caused candidates who violated the non-laws to slink from the scene. Trump, by acting as if the laws don’t exist, has demonstrated that they do not.

Forgive me for going on so long. Maybe, as a long-time practitioner of the dark arts of journalism, I (and many others) had come to believe in certain laws that weren’t laws or truths about truth-seeking that Trump suggests were never true at all, and that facts are less powerful than feelings.

Media dilemma

In a smart piece for Vox, David Roberts summarized the “dilemma” that Trumpiness has visited upon certain assumptions that the “old guard political media” had relied upon about their role:

“The old-guard political media has always seen itself as a disinterested referee. But what they confront now is aggressive, unapologetic nonsense, piped up from a nationalist, ethnocentric, revanchist conservative base through the mouth of one Donald J. Trump. He is forcing them to choose sides, to accept his bare assertions and make a mockery of their purported allegiance to accuracy … or to call him out and, in the eyes of his supporters, formally align against him.

“The conceptual space for neutrality has all but disappeared. Media outlets are being forced to take sides, and facing the grim possibility that even if they do, they have no power to affect the outcome. Their twin idols — objectivity and influence — are being exposed as illusions. That’s what has them so anxious about Donald Trump.”