You know Donald Trump has exercised the “leverage” he always seeks in life when even his bitter adversary, former Texas governor Rick Perry (who called him “a cancer on conservatism”) admits that Trump “helped himself” on Thursday by taking a pledge not to run as an independent in 2016. Only eleven weeks after people laughed as he made his presidential announcement at New York’s Trump Tower, I watched him return to a podium there as a maestro calling the Republican party’s tune.
The current RealClearPolitics average of all national polls has Trump clearly in the lead for the GOP nomination. He has 27 percent of the vote, more than twice the support that Ben Carson, another political newcomer, has, at 13 percent. The combined strength of the next four candidates — Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker — barely surpasses Trump’s support.
With that kind of “leverage,” it was an easy call for Trump to sign the pledge that RNC chairman Reince Preibus took the time to fly up to New York to present to him. As Roger Stone, Trump’s former and occasionally current adviser, put it on MSNBC: “Trump came out of this the winner. He got 16 other Republican candidates to pledge to support him should he win the nomination, and he gave up very little.”
Trump is now a maestro calling the Republican party’s tune.
So now that it’s clear Trump isn’t leaving the party, the race for the Republican nomination enters a new phase. Call it Trump vs. Trump. If Trump can keep up the momentum of his medicine-man show, he will continue to fuel speculation that he can win the nomination against a divided field of 16 opponents. If Trump can’t, it will be because his internal contradictions and his constant shifts in position catch up with him as voters pay more attention to the process.
But those who label Trump the front-runner need to remember the mechanics of a party’s presidential contest. Nate Silver of the polling site fivethirtyeight.com makes some sharp observations about the current polls:
▪ They contemplate a vote today, but we’re currently 174 days from the Iowa caucuses.
▪ They contemplate a national primary, but states vote one at a time or in small groups.
▪ They contemplate a race with 17 candidates, but several candidates will drop out before Iowa and several more will drop out before the other states vote.
▪ They contemplate a winner-take-all vote, but most states are not winner-take-all.
▪ They contemplate a vote among all Republican-leaning registered voters or adults, but in fact only a small fraction will turn out for primaries and caucuses.
That last point is most important. Even when Barack Obama battled Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination and voter interest was sky-high, only about a quarter of eligible voters turned out for those primaries.
In this year’s GOP primary polls, Trump is receiving his highest levels of support from people least likely to vote in a Republican primary. As pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson points out, GOP-leaning independents are often half of the sample in primary polls, but they traditionally make up a quarter or less of Republican voters in early primaries. As GOP analyst Patrick Ruffini notes, “in many states, these independents are barred from voting in party primaries at all.”
#share#The other problem Trump will have is that, as big as his lead is, he faces a lower ceiling for his support than other candidates. As analyst Henry Olsen wrote last month in National Review: “Trump will have a very hard time building on his current support in later races. We can see this from two other questions polls often ask — namely, whether voters have a favorable or unfavorable impression of a candidate and whether voters cannot support a candidate under any circumstances. Trump polls much more poorly on these questions than he does on questions of voter preference.”
The real opponent that Donald Trump faces is himself. As a master of publicity, he has tapped into a pool of frustrated and forgotten Americans who are fed up with political correctness, the U.S.’s retreat from world leadership, and the American Dream becoming ever harder to realize. They all want to believe things can be different.
RELATED: What Makes Donald Run?
Trump has been brilliant at crafting his message to appeal to those people. In his 1987 book Art of the Deal, he put it bluntly: “I play to people’s fantasies. . . . I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”
But promotion gets you in the door to make your sales pitch, it doesn’t guarantee the sale. And that’s where Trump’s internal contradictions — his bullying, his shameless boasting, his constant inconsistency on issues, and his lack of conservative bona fides — will likely start to weigh on him.
#related#Trump himself is aware of the limitations of his approach. While he now praises Ronald Reagan, he was far more critical, in Art of the Deal, of the Gipper’s general competence at the time of the Iran-Contra scandal. “He is so smooth and so effective a performer that he completely won over the American people,” Trump wrote of Reagan in 1987. “Only now, nearly seven years later, are people beginning to question whether there’s anything behind that smile.”
I don’t know the answer about when exactly Trump’s performing abilities start to wear thin with his audiences, but it’s inevitable that more and more people will start to wonder whether there’s anything behind his bombast. That’s the point in the campaign The Donald has to worry about.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.