How to Tell If Donald Trump's Candidacy Is Getting Serious

One of America's leading public-opinion researchers says the real-estate mogul generates strong feelings—and has the potential to be a spoiler.

TRUMP ANNOUNCEMENT

Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc., right, is greeted but his daughter Ivanka Trump while announcing he will seek the 2016 Republican presidential nomination at Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, June 16, 2015.

Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

By J. Ann Selzer

Every so often in my role as a public-opinion researcher, I’m asked to sit down with a tableful of likely Republican caucus-goers to talk about various issues. Lately, Donald Trump’s name has been coming up. The businessman and TV personality inevitably gets a vote or two when I go around the table and ask what candidates are worthy of their support. Some Iowans are just seeking someone demonstrably competent at running big organizations. I culled through our trove of comments from focus groups held over the last few years.

In those focus groups, his fans acknowledge his flamboyance, but credit him with being a savvy, successful businessman who speaks the truth on many issues. Then there are those who bring up his role in questioning President Barack Obama's citizenship and consider him a poor representative for conservatives. Some go so far as to say they despise him.

Trump’s favorability rating in our most recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll is tepid. Just 27 percent feel good about him. That’s the sum of just 7 percent who are very favorable and 20 percent who are mostly favorable. 

The hate shows up more prominently. His unfavorable rating more than doubles his favorability rating at 63 percent. A full one in three give the strongest negative response offered, reporting very unfavorable feelings toward him.  

Could all this change? In Iowa, almost anything can happen. A couple of weeks ago, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced he would make a bid for the presidency. His favorability score jumped 10 points. That was achievable only because his visibility grew 10 points. People who did not know him before liked what they saw. 

That cannot happen for Trump. Just 10 percent say they do not know enough about him to rate him—putting him in the league with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. He’d have to persuade people who currently experience bad feelings about him to give him a shot. He’d need to get a lot of attention, which he is quite capable of doing. But he risks making his negative number even higher.

Still, Trump could be a spoiler. Any first-choice votes he gets in national polls are points that could have gone to other candidates who do not currently meet the criteria for the first two major debates—to rank in the top 10 in national polls. If he gets another couple of percentage points in the horserace question, he could bump former Texas Governor Rick Perry and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie off the stage.

His participation could make the debates a ratings bonanza. In December 2011, about 7.5 million people tuned in to watch a Republican debate held in Des Moines, Iowa. While that is far fewer than Trump drew in his opening season on The Apprentice (its finale attracted about 28 million viewers), it is about what he’s seen lately for Celebrity Apprentice episodes. The first debate between Mitt Romney and Obama in 2012 drew a whopping 67 million viewers. When people are interested, they watch.

Trump generates a curious blend of attraction and repulsion, sometimes in the same person.  The next round of polls in the next several weeks will tell whether his announcement that he is running will do more to pull voters in or push them away.  

That will be the reality check for this reality star.

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J. Ann Selzer is president of Selzer & Co., a West Des Moines, Iowa-based public opinion research firm. In addition to work for a wide range of clients, she directs the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll. 

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