Months after his campaign was widely expected to collapse, billionaire Donald Trump continues to enjoy wide leads over his challengers in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
The long length of time that he’s led the field has finally gotten Republican officials to take the prospect of his candidacy seriously. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the organization assigned to elect members of the party to the U.S. Senate, recently wrote a private memorandum (which of course was leaked) to candidates advising them on what to do in case Trump obtains the GOP nomination.
Despite such plans, however, some political observers are continuing to insist that the New York real estate developer cannot win. Veteran Republican strategist Stuart Stevens has argued Trump will not be able to win either the first vote in Iowa or the second one in New Hampshire. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer argued on Thursday that Trump cannot win because he has never had a majority of Republicans in the polls supporting him and eventually the anti-Trump vote will coalesce against him.
That may indeed prove to be the case. But there are a few reasons to believe that Trump has room to grow beyond the roughly 30 percent support that he has consistently attracted for the past few months.
1. Trump Isn’t Shy But His Supporters Might Be
Opinion polling is subject to something called “social desirability bias” which is a fancy way of saying that people are more inclined to give the “politically correct” answer when asked about their beliefs or behavior.
The effects of this on political polling have been observed many times over the years such as on the issue of same-sex marriage where surveys tend to underestimate opposition by about 5 to 7 percentage points. Social desirability bias has also impacted the polling in Europe where surveys have consistently underestimated the support of nationalist, anti-immigrant parties such as the National Front in France.
The polling in the UK has also been demonstrated to have a so-called “shy Tory effect” where supporters of the Conservative Party tend to be less willing to tell questioners that they’re doing so. In 10 of the last 12 elections, polls underrated the Tory vote.
Beyond political questions, social desirability bias is also shown to exist when respondents are asked about their religious practices. People have been shown to lie about how often they attend church when asked by someone on the phone versus filling out a form on their computers.
What does this have to do with Donald Trump? Well as it turns out, the rather negative coverage that the voluble real estate mogul receives may make people who support him less likely to admit to it, perhaps by 10 points.
2. Trump Supporters Are More Certain
The second reason that Trump has better odds, at least at this juncture, is that people willing to say that they support him are more firm in their preference compared to supporters of other candidates. In a CBS/New York Times poll released on Thursday, 51 percent of respondents favoring Trump said their minds were made up about him compared to around 25 percent among supporters of other candidates. In a survey sponsored by USA Today, 68 percent of Trump backers said they’d vote for him if he ran as an independent. Such loyalty gives Trump a solid base of support which he can grow by convincing supporters of other candidates to back him instead.
3. Most Republicans Are Willing to Vote Trump
Although he has not usually polled above 35 percent among Republicans as their first choice, GOPers generally are favorably disposed to Donald Trump. In a University of Massachusetts poll conducted in November, a majority of Republicans (54 percent) said they would be willing to vote for him. The only other candidate who enjoyed such goodwill was retired surgeon Ben Carson. This was before he had made a series of embarrassing gaffes about the Egyptian pyramids and foreign policy, however. By contrast, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Florida senator Marco both had about about 40 percent.
4. Republicans Say Trump Is Best on the Issues
In a CNN poll conducted November 27 through December 1, the billionaire businessman topped all of his rivals by a wide margin when Republicans were asked which candidate could handle various issues such as the economy (Trump’s margin: 46 points), illegal immigration (34 points), foreign policy (13 points), ISIS (31 points), the budget (40 points). There was not one issue where another candidate was trusted by Republicans more than Trump.
5. Republicans Think Trump Will Win
In sports, teams that play poorly for consecutive seasons tend to have few fans. Politics is the same way; people want to back a winner. And studies have shown that in primary elections, media coverage of who’s ahead and who’s behind can have a major effect on voters, especially Republicans. In one study conducted during the 1996 presidential primaries, participants were 6 percent more likely to vote for the leading candidate they believed was leading in the polls.
Donald Trump has been leading in the polls since July and it’s probably affecting public perception of the strength of his candidacy.
In the CNN survey mentioned above, 52 percent of Republicans said he had the best chance in the general election. Only 15 percent percent said the same about Marco Rubio, the candidate deemed to have the next-best chances. In the University of Massachusetts survey mentioned above, 40 percent thought Trump had the best chance. The next-closest was Carson at 24 percent.
When asked who they think will win the GOP nomination, 69 percent told Rasmussen Reports that they thought Trump would. That’s significantly higher than the 36 percent who said that they thought Trump would win in a November poll conducted for NBC and the Wall Street Journal. The businessman was well ahead of his next-closest rival, Ben Carson who had 25 percent saying he would win the prize.
6. Trump Does and Will Dominate Media Coverage
Even though it’s more negative than positive, the press coverage that Donald Trump receives dwarfs the amount that his competition gets. According to one analysis, there were more reports about Trump on the evening news programs of ABC, CBS, and NBC than there were about the rest of the Republican field combined.
The amount of coverage has an effect on Trump’s poll numbers. As political scientist John Sides has documented, there is an almost direct correlation between the amount of coverage that The Donald has received and his public support numbers:
Given Trump’s uncanny ability to instantly generate media attention for himself, expect this trend to continue for a long time. While more press coverage has harmed candidates like Ben Carson this cycle and Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann in the last cycle, the firm opinions and antagonistic attitude that Trump supporters have toward the press is going to mean that this trend will likely continue for quite some time. More coverage of Trump will mean more support for Trump.
Does all of this mean that the bilious businessman is destined to become the GOP nominee? Not quite. That’s especially true since there are several factors which could mean Trump’s support is actually weaker than it seems.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
A writer, television producer, and cybersecurity consultant, Matthew Sheffield is a Bold contributor. He currently is a producer and reporter at The Hill's video division, Hill.TV.