Having surged to the top of the polls nationally and in the key early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Donald Trump is now the clear front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Set against the backdrop of a conventional wisdom that held such a thing impossible, how did it happen? Why did it happen? How sustainable is Trump’s rise? And what, if anything, might take the wind out of his sails?
To take a stab at answering those questions, we asked our partners at Purple Strategies to help us convene a focus group of Trump supporters at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. The group was made up of six Republicans and six Republican-leaning independents, six women and six men. Culturally and economically, they were a diverse lot, ranging from working- to upper-middle-class, from unemployed to blue-collar to professional. Five called themselves adherents to the Tea Party and the others were at least mildly sympathetic to that movement. But their second choices in the Republican field ran the gamut from Jeb Bush and John Kasich to Ben Carson and Ted Cruz.
The hundred minutes or so I spent with them were fascinating, informative, and fun. I learned a ton. The main five takeaways are these:
1. Trump appears to be no summer fling
According to the latest polling, Trump commands the support of roughly 20 percent of Republican voters nationally and in New Hampshire (and a little shy of that in Iowa). That may prove to be his ceiling; we shall see. But judging from our focus group, anyone who believes Trump is merely this cycle’s incarnation of Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain—a shooting star destined to fall to earth as rapidly as he rocketed skyward—is out to lunch.
The support for The Donald on display among the supporters I met was striking for its depth and intensity. They like him, admire him, rise to his defense quickly and instinctively, and speak of him in terms (truth-teller, Reaganesque) that would be the envy of any candidate for any office. When confronted with facts about him that they might find discomfiting, their reflex was to bat those facts away or explain why they don’t matter. None of these Trump supporters are just discovering him now; they’ve looked up to him for years, and when he flirted with a run in 2012, wanted him to dive in then. These folks are not in kicking-the-tires mode. They give every appearance of being with Trump for the long haul.
2. Trump is synonymous with success
In trying to suss out the sources of Trump’s support, many analysts point to his controversial statements about and stances on the topic of immigration. Others point to his anti-Establishmentarianism, his take-no-prisoners style and apparent inclination to flout every diktat in the presidential candidate rule book. No doubt both of those factors are big parts of what is fueling Trump’s ascent. But what struck me more was the degree to which the voters in our group were familiar with and impressed by Trump’s business exploits—how enamored they were of his tycoonhood.
I wondered how many of them first became aware of Trump through The Apprentice. To a person, they said they has been acquainted with the The Donald’s mythos—Trump Towers, his casinos and golf courses, the glam-life melodramas swirling around him and Ivana and Marla Maples—for years before that. One young woman spoke about reading The Art of the Deal on the beach as a little girl; another recounted asking her mother if she could write Trump a letter asking for advice about how to be as successful as him. While Trump’s brash persona is a big part of why his proponents like him, his career as a capitalist is for them the main credential he presents that qualifies him for the presidency.
3. Trump is that rare billionaire who is also “one of us”
The central paradox of Trump’s appeal to his fans is this: They see him as vastly richer, more successful, and more powerful than them, but also as being uniquely attuned to their concerns, values, and needs. When I pressed on this apparent conundrum, it resolved itself quite cleanly: Trump may be a billionaire, but he is “one of us” because he isn’t “one of them”—with “them” defined as the loathsome creatures of the political class. Again and again, the members of our group derided and denounced professional politicians as out of touch, persistently posturing, and utterly craven. Afraid to speak their minds. Only interested in feathering their own nests. Afflicted by, as one our group’s members put it succinctly, “Washingtonitis.”
That Trump possesses (and is possessed by) none of those qualities is, again, a huge part of what makes him attractive to his supporters. But more than that, it helps explain how someone who lives in such a rarefied air can play the populist card so adroitly and effectively.
4. Trump’s Teflon is very, very thick
Partway through the focus group, we played video clips featuring two of Trump’s rivals—Jeb Bush and Rick Perry—laying into him. When I asked the participants what they thought of the criticisms, their response was telling. To a person, they flayed Bush and Perry, dismissing them as defensive, even scared, of what Trump represented: both a threat to their candidacies and to the established order in the Republican Party of which they are a part. When I pressed them on the substance of what Bush and Perry were saying about Trump, they dismissed it out of hand. The criticisms didn’t make Trump supporters think less of The Donald; it made them think less of Bush and Perry.
The lesson for Trump’s rivals? Attacking him in conventional ways isn’t merely likely to be ineffective, doing little or nothing to chip away at his support. It may backfire.
5. Trump's Kryptonite may be...Trump
For all their ardor for Trump and knowledge of his business background, his supporters admit they are a bit sketchy about other aspects of his past—in particular, his political past—and his views about many areas of policy. Toward the end of my time with our group, I ran through some potentially uncomfortable elements of Trump’s history with them: that for many years he declared himself supportive of abortion rights; that he has donated many tens of thousands of dollars to standard-issue politicians, including Democrats; that one of those Democrats is Hillary Clinton, of whom he has long spoken fondly and with whose family he has long been friendly; and that he has repeatedly described himself as a supporter of a single-payer health care system. I also brought up the bankruptcies of some Trump-linked companies, as well as the recent stories in the press regarding the past “marital rape” allegations of his ex-wife Ivana (which she later walked back).
Taken individually, none of the items of this bill of attainder (except one, of which more in a moment) fazed the Trumpistas. But taken collectively, they seemed to induce a slight, creeping sense of unease as the group members grappled with an array of unfamiliar data points about Trump. The one piece of information that unequivocally troubled many of them was his onetime support for single-payer. They all wanted to know more about that—and how it squared with Trump’s broadsides against Obamacare. For the first time all night, the specter of “flip-flopping” was raised. Given the nature of Trump’s appeal, if that epithet were to stick to him, it could do grave damage with his core supporters.
But Trump’s political and ideological promiscuity may not be the only way in which he could prove to be his own worst enemy. As much as Trump’s devotees thrill at his serial violations of the precepts of political correctness—at his willingness, as one supporter put it, to say what many people really think but are simply too cowardly to say out loud—they are also keenly aware of the potential political cost of those outbursts. More than once, members of the group expressed worry that Trump might cross so far over the line that he would render himself unelectable. That the thing they find most compelling about him could be his undoing. And that it might, in the process, ensure Clinton’s reoccupation of the White House.
Such worries, along with those raised by the prospect of an independent bid should he fail to claim the nomination, are real enough for his supporters. But they also seem distant and remote. For now, his fans are content to revel in a phenomenon they thought they would never, ever see: a Republican presidential candidate who talks like them, who expresses their anger and frustration, extending a stiff middle finger at everything they detest—and not just getting away with it, but seeing it pay off big-time. For if Trump can do it, hey, who knows? Maybe, through him, they can, too.