When Donald Trump takes center stage at Thursday’s Fox News debate in Cleveland, it will be a critical moment for the Republican Party. Until recently, Americans mentally categorized Trump as a celebrity entertainer and interpreted his madcap antics and controversial pronouncements accordingly. But on Thursday, voters will experience Trump in a much different context: as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, who not only leads the presidential field by a wide margin but, as a new Bloomberg Politics poll shows, has a powerful appeal to every segment of the Republican electorate.
That’s great news for Trump. But if voters start associating his demagogic rantings about Mexican “rapists” not with Trump alone but with the broader Republican Party, his presence in the field could doom the GOP’s efforts to extend its appeal to new voters. “If he got the nomination talking like that, it would be a big problem,” says Grover Norquist, the conservative anti-tax stalwart. Even Trump’s current standing could tarnish the Republican brand, says Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee: “It’s something very scary for the party establishment.”
Before Trump formally declared his candidacy in June, the American public held a firm opinion of him that has been remarkably consistent through the years. The deepest examination of Trump measured steadily over time is probably his Q Score—the entertainment industry’s popular measure of celebrity, television, and brand appeal. “Trump has consistently been in the category of celebrities that people love to hate, love to criticize,” says Henry Schafer, executive vice president of The Q Scores Company. “With the success of his TV show, he’s very controversial, intentionally marketing himself in a way that stirs the pot.” According to Schafer, the celebrities most proximate to Trump in Q Score rating are the Kardashians and Howard Stern. (For the curious, Trump’s positive Q Score was 7 and negative Q Score was 45 when last measured in January-February. The average celebrity, says Schafer, is about 15/26.)
But Schafer’s company has stopped measuring Trump—they now consider him a politician, not an entertainer. Soon, others could, too. And with Trump leaping into Republican politics as an uninhibited, bomb-throwing nativist, his negative image among the broader American electorate could have significant political repercussions. That’s because, as a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows (thanks to Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies for providing added data), negative feelings toward Trump are most intense among precisely the groups that Republicans are struggling most to attract: Millennials, black and Hispanic voters, and professionals with advanced degrees:
The scary scenario for Republicans, then, is that come Thursday night, Americans will make the same category shift as the Q Scores Company—that the Fox News debate will serve, in essence, as Donald Trump’s political bar mitzvah, the moment when he becomes a “Republican” in voters’ eyes, with all the positives and negatives that implies for his party.
Not every Republican worries about a “Trump effect” harming the GOP’s electoral fortunes. “Trump is a flash in the pan,” says Republican strategist John Feehery. “He’s not a serious candidate, no matter what the polls say. He will self-implode.”
Others are hopeful that Trump will “grow into the role” and comport himself in a manner more befitting a presidential frontrunner. “The question is,” says Norquist, “is he capable of turning on a dime when the camera shines on him and saying, ‘Here are my standard, boring traditional Republican views’ with maybe a couple of colorful additions?”
But Trump’s broad popularity and enduring strength among Republicans lend credence to a different interpretation: that his candidacy has become the preferred vehicle for Republican voters to express maximal outrage at their own party’s leaders for failing to carry out the agenda they keep promising. It’s one that many conservatives ardently desire: to deport undocumented immigrants, kill Obamacare, overturn Roe v. Wade, and return the GOP to a position of primacy in American politics.
“If you look at the whole Republican Party, from libertarians to evangelicals to the Tea Party,” says Steele, “you have a group of people who’ve been lied to for 35 years. Republican [presidential candidates] have said, ‘Elect us and we’ll do these things.’ Well, they haven’t. And that frustration is manifesting itself in Trump.”
For a party that has tried, and mostly failed, to recast itself as more positive and inclusive since Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, Trump’s performance on Thursday could be an important determinant of whether that vision is still feasible. “I think we should all sit back and enjoy the show,” says Feehery. The danger for Republicans is that millions of people will—and Trump won’t disappointment them.