Even if Donald Trump loses the Republican presidential primary, the front-runner's unique brand of nativism has profoundly altered the race in a way that is sure to impact the general election.
The blustery New Yorker's proposal this week to ban foreign citizens who are Muslims from entering the U.S. for an indefinite period of time was just the latest example of Trump connecting with a large portion of the Republican base, moving the debate in previously unthinkable ways and putting his rivals in a tough position.
A Bloomberg Politics poll found that a stunning 65 percent of likely Republican primary voters support Trump's proposal to bar Muslims, compared with 22 percent who oppose it. More than twice as many respondents (37 percent) said the plan makes them more likely to support Trump than less likely (16 percent). Republican leaders and primary rivals, meanwhile, roundly rejected the idea.
Some Republican strategists say that when it comes to positions such as rounding up and deporting undocumented workers, ending birthright citizenship, and banning entry of foreign Muslims, Trump has moved the Overton Window in a dangerous direction.
“I don’t think that those extreme positions would be brought up in any context in a Republican primary,” said GOP consultant Cheri Jacobus. “I think the Republicans who are running and other leaders would be talking aggressively and responsibly about homeland security and those immigrants coming into the country legally or illegally who might be a danger, but to bring it to this level—the irresponsible, dangerous level that Donald Trump has—is a problem.”
As Republican rivals try to chip away some of the front-runner's support, many of them, from ideological crusaders like Texas Senator Ted Cruz to establishment favorites like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush—have taken positions along the spectrum that appeal to his supporters, albeit with more subtlety and polished rhetoric.
Cruz has embraced the idea of building a wall on the southern border and abandoned his support for expanding legal immigration. Both Cruz and Bush have proposed a religious test to focus on admitting Christian refugees, rather than Muslims. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has vowed to bar all refugees, including 5-year-old orphans. Just days before Trump released his proposal to ban Muslims, Florida Senator Marco Rubio assailed President Barack Obama for suggesting there's “a problem in America with discrimination against Muslims” and closed the door on new refugees after the Paris attacks before opening it again slightly. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has also chimed in, saying he doesn't believe a Muslim should be president. When Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S., Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said, “I've called for something similar”—a moratorium based on risk from countries, rather than religion. Before he dropped out in late September, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was so eager to appear tough on immigration he once declined to rule out a wall on the northern U.S. border with Canada.
Democrats are exploiting every opportunity to link the rest of the Republican Party directly to Trump. The White House, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, and allied outside groups like Priorities USA are all using speeches, press conferences, Web videos, and online postings to make the point.
The “truth is, many GOP candidates have also said extreme things about Muslims. Their language may be more veiled than Mr. Trump’s, but their ideas aren’t so different,” Clinton wrote in a post published Tuesday on her campaign website.
“In politics, perceptions count,” political scientist Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College said in an e-mail. “If voters in the 2016 general election equate Trumpism and Republicanism, the party will have a yuge problem. He has offended women, Hispanics, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, and Asians. It is not possible to build a majority on the male white Christian leftovers.”
Damages and Recoveries
A further problem for Republicans—even the many who have joined Democrats in denouncing his Muslim ban idea—is that Trump is exposing the distance between the party's leaders and much of the party base.
Some Republican strategists argue the damage of Trumpism will be limited if Trump loses in the primary, since the party will be defined by its nominee. But the risk of Trump becoming the face of the GOP in the general election has raised alarm bells to the point where others agree with Democrats who say the party should renounce him.
“Conservative Republicans are better served by casting out a demagogue like Donald Trump and, regrettably, the supporters who may follow him, in order to clarify and broaden electoral support for conservatism among new voters in the long term,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist.
Cooper said Trump's “perversion” of Republicanism “gives voters and observers an incredibly false impression of our party and our platform,” and that “Trump is the best thing Hillary Clinton has going for her, and for that matter, President Obama.”
Will They Vote?
Trump has led the field in nearly every national poll of Republicans—and most state polls—for five months. But revealingly, his support is lower in polls of past primary voters versus those who say they plan to vote in the 2016 Republican nominating contest. Two Iowa polls released Monday neatly illustrated the point—a Monmouth University poll found Trump in second place, down 5 points to Cruz, while a CNN poll found him leading the field by 13 points. Monmouth pulled samples from voter rolls in recent elections, while CNN polled those who said they intend to caucus.
That discrepancy is another cause for nervousness among Republicans.
“Indeed, much of [Trump's] support comes from people who normally don’t participate in Republican primaries and caucuses,” Pitney said. “Nobody knows if these folks will actually show up in the nomination process, which creates uncertainty and nervousness in GOP ranks.”
The GOP's nightmare is Trump bolting the party and running as an independent, a scenario in which prominent strategists like former top White House adviser Karl Rove argue the Republican vote would split and the election would be handed to Democrats. One reason the Republican establishment continues to tolerate Trump is that the real estate mogul, in a demonstration of his negotiating skills, subtly threatens to go rogue.
—Arit John contributed to this story.