With another GOP debate imminent, poll leader Donald Trump will have several more opportunities to antagonize opponents, media members, and various segments of the public, as he has done repeatedly in recent months.
Thus far, it hasn’t hurt him. At all.
The flurry of activity around the blessed return of football this past weekend knocked loose a few rocks in my head that led me to contemplate Donald Trump’s consistently strong polling numbers from a gridiron-centric perspective.
I’ll explain in a minute, but Trump’s popularity is a fascinating phenomenon that begs analysis in search of explanation. To be sure, there are some who genuinely like Trump. And I absolutely understand his visceral appeal and charisma. Every other candidate, to some degree, projects a personality that ranges from “reserved” to “programmed-by-a-focus-group.”
Trump is many things, but he is neither shy nor bland. He understands popular culture better than the other potential nominees because he has been an integral part of popular culture for the better part of three decades. That appeals to a lot of people. On top of that, his support is also fueled a layer of Tea-Party-esque frustration with the GOP’s inability to deliver the White House in two attempts against Barack Obama. Trump, partially through his birtherism history, taps into and harnesses that frustration.
Yet, most Republicans—including many of Trump’s supporters—seem to hold views that clash with Trump’s, immigration excepted. While his more skeptical conservative critics rightly question whether he even qualifies as a conservative at all, there is no doubt that he remains relatively popular with Republicans.
Granted, the inherently fractured nature of support for over a dozen GOP candidates makes Trump’s percentages seem more commanding than they are, but the fact remains that he’s been the front-runner for a while now. And we’ve sailed past the point where his success can be explained entirely by name recognition.
With all of the obvious issues, like the lack of depth of foreign policy knowledge and the questionable conservative bona fides, why is he doing so well?
This is where football comes in.
In another life, I was a (thoroughly mediocre) football player, and, later, an assistant coach. Sometimes, a player will seem to be dragging in practice—especially over the summer before the season begins. You’ll know he can play better.
One motivational technique that certain coaches use is to drop that player on the depth chart to make a point. Temporarily, of course. The idea being that your Big Man On Campus will see somebody with much less ability ostensibly starting ahead of him and be inspired to raise his own effort and concentration level accordingly. He’ll begin playing better due either to shame or anger, depending on the personality involved.
In this needlessly elaborate metaphor, Trump is the lowly back-up, and the mainstream GOP field is the would-be starter. The “coaching staff” is the GOP electorate that seems so enamored with The Donald despite his flaws.
The question, then, is whether a substantial number of the people who keep listing Trump as their preferred candidate are doing so merely as a wake-up call to the other candidates. Are they saying to the GOP, in effect: Don’t be so stiff and “politician-like,” focus more on immigration, and stop being afraid of the mainstream media—much less Democrats.
My suspicion is that this is the case. And this is good news for Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.
Just as a football coach won’t leave his best players to languish at the bottom of the depth chart when the regular season begins, I believe that Republican primary voters will abandon Trump once they have to start casting actual votes. By that time, they hope, the wake-up call will have gotten through to the GOP candidates who actually hold (or have held) elected office.
Confronted by the daunting sight of the touchscreen on an honest-to-goodness voting machine early next year, many summer and fall Trump supporters will find their alleged affinity for Trump wavering and their respective index fingers drawn to the name of a more conventional—and electable—candidate.