You may have heard that Donald Trump is running for president.
Since the day he announced his candidacy, Trump's brash style and divisive statements have been the focus of unprecedented media coverage. Controversial areas include: Mexican immigrants ("They're bringing crime. They're rapists."), Sen. John McCain ("I like people who weren't captured.), Megyn Kelly ("blood coming out of her wherever"), and his call to ban Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. ("until we can figure out what is going on").
His campaign represents a kind of passionate politics that deviates from the current GOP establishment. But Trump is not unique; there is ample historical precedent for his candidacy. He is also not a surprise; his message is part of a much larger set of trends in American politics.
Why is it important?
Trump is leading the Republican field. As of now, he has 15 point lead on average over his closest rival, Sen. Ted Cruz. This lead is real and important, but needs historical context: in 2004, Hillary Clinton had a 32 point lead over eventual nominee John Kerry. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani had a 12 point lead over nominee John McCain while Clinton led soon-to-be President Obama by 14 points.
Widespread support for Trump reveals interesting realities about this campaign cycle, our political landscape, and our country's collective views—debated below.
This week’s section is special. I felt any for-or-against format would just be a lesser version of the overarching question. So instead, we're tackling it head on:
What does Trump’s polling lead tell us about the GOP and the country as a whole?
Trump may be unorthodox, but support for him reflects sincerely-held grievances on the part of a surprisingly large group of Americans.
So, who are his supporters? Notably, he leads among all major demographic groups (among those that self-identify as Republican.) However, his lead is not equal among all groups. He is strongest in the Southeast up through Appalachia, among voters who are less affluent and less educated on average within their party. These voters have also historically been less likely to vote, but could be motivated to do so in 2016.
What are their concerns? Interestingly, the major threads are less traditionally political than they are philosophical. In general, these groups express a deep mistrust of establishment—not only federal and state governments but also unions, corporations, and even the Republican Party itself. Among other factors, Trump connects with this feeling through his anti-establishment "outsider" messaging, despite his celebrity and his wealth.
The other general feeling is pinpointed by Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again." Trump supporters perceive their country to be weakening and their own prospects dimming, and find that Trump's message speaks to them.
Trump's lead is the product of an internal class war within the GOP and a decades-long trend in the party's branding of its candidates.
The gulf is widening between two groups: Republican party elites who espouse the kind of classic conservatism embodied by Mitt Romney, and a more ideologically militant group spearheaded by the Tea Party—and now turning to Trump.
Further, candidates' branding has shifted in the last 20 years. The GOP has gradually steered elections towards likability. George W. Bush, a prime example, was marketed as someone to get a beer with. After 9/11, he was branded with swagger over substance—calling himself "the decider" guided by his "gut." Most notably, John McCain, a policy heavyweight and genuine war hero, was pressured to choose the bubbly and inept Sarah Palin.
Being personable has always been an asset across parties and campaign cycles (think JFK v. Nixon). But the deliberate dumbing down of the conversation on the part of an entire party is a recent trend that—paired with a changing party base—has set the stage, perhaps unintentionally, for Donald Trump.