After his now-famous comments deriding the war record of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) last weekend, Donald Trump was supposed to be toast.
NBC’s First Read asked if this was a “tipping point.”
“Trump GOP Candidacy Blows Up” blared a Weekly Standard headline. “DON VOYAGE: Trump is toast after insult,” proclaimed the front page of the New York Post. “Trump is toast,” the conservative magazine Commentary put it simply.
“Trump will continue to be loud and defiant,” ABC’s Rick Klein said, “but he will cease being relevant long before votes are cast.” Mitt Romney tweeted, “The difference between Sen. John McCain and Donald Trump: Trump shot himself down.”
“It’s still a great question how this Republican nomination race will sort out once this Trump nonsense ends,” wrote National Journal’s Charlie Cook. The establishment reaction to Trump’s McCain comments “will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust,” according to the New York Times.
Yet Trump continues to surge in the polls, with a CNN-ORC poll finding he continues to lead the field nationwide at 18 percent, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 15 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 10 percent. The rest of the field was in single digits. Beyond the 18 percent giving him their support, well over half of white evangelicals, conservatives, and tea party supporters want him to remain in the race. Trump has now led five out of the last five national polls.
One NBC News-Marist poll found that Trump led the GOP field in New Hampshire with 21 percent support — Bush followed with 14 percent and Walker at 12 percent. The other 14 candidates were in the single digits.
Another poll in Iowa showed Trump almost tied with Walker’s lead position there — 17 percent for Trump and 19 for Walker. Bush trailed at 12 percent and the rest of the field in single digits. The Iowa poll was conducted before and after Trump’s comments about McCain — in New Hampshire his support and favorability rating dropped after the comments while in Iowa they actually increased.
This success has impact beyond poll numbers, as it causes other GOP candidates, some of whom have governed states or passed significant legislation, to miss the first primary debate.
A survey of early-state GOP “insiders” conducted by Politico last week found that three-quarters of respondents thought Trump had peaked.
Some candidates have lashed out at Trump, while others have taken a “well if you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em” approach. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee recently said Trump was “fascinating” and “sort of unfiltered in a way that’s refreshing.” In fact, Huckabee said, perhaps Huckabee was Trump before Trump was Trump. “I’ll be honest with you, a lot of the things that he’s saying, those are things that, in many ways, I’ve been saying those for eight years.”
For his part, Trump explains his surge as being larger than himself.
“This is more than me,” he said on CNN. “This is a movement going on. People are tired of these incompetent politicians in Washington who can’t get anything done.”
The real conclusion to be drawn from the last week? Pundits should pause prior to making pronouncements, and would do better to let events play out as they may. Political outcomes are unpredictable.