Donald Trump is still soaring in the polls—and a new set of numbers brings the furor over his plan to temporarily ban Muslims from coming to America into sharper relief.
Most of the press—and a major chunk of the Republican Party—has been acting as though Trump is a dangerous demagogue for proposing such a thing. And indeed, it raises fundamental questions about religion and terrorism, morality and constitutionality.
It’s controversial enough that the headline on a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll out last night said that “57% Oppose Trump’s Muslim Proposal.”
Fair enough. But a closer look shows that among Republican primary voters, it’s an even split—38 percent supporting Trump’s plan. 39 percent opposing it.
That doesn’t make the plan right or unobjectionable. But GOP voters are split on the very proposal that the mainstream media have been casting as beyond the pale.
On the other side, three-quarters of Democrats and more than half of independents disagree with the Trump idea.
What about what I’ll call Trumpism? The Journal/NBC poll says that a plurality, 41 percent, believe that Trump’s campaign statements are frequently insulting and have the wrong approach.
“But among Republicans, only 16 percent find him insulting; 37 percent believe he's raising important issues despite his language; and 40 percent say he's telling it like it is.”
Trump has caused a deep spit within the GOP. But there’s also a disconnect between what many Republicans think and the way his campaign is being covered.
Journalism is too poll-driven, to be sure. But on the horse race, these surveys make clear that Trump has a huge lead. If anyone else was putting up these kinds of numbers, we in the punditry business would be saying he’s all but got the nomination locked up.
I’m skeptical of national polls, since we don’t have a national primary, but this New York Times/CBS survey shows that Trump still has the momentum—even though the paper throws a major qualifier into the lead:
“Donald J. Trump occupies his strongest position yet in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, yet nearly two-thirds of American voters say they are concerned or frightened about the prospect of a Trump presidency.”
Trump is at 35 percent, with Ted Cruz, who’s had a good month, a distant second at 16 percent. Ben Carson, who is clearly slipping, is down to 13 percent, and Marco Rubio is at 9. Everyone else is at 4 percent or less.
What’s more, majorities say their support for Trump (and for Hillary on the Democratic side) is firm.
So here’s the stink bomb: Among all voters, “24 percent of voters expressed concern and 40 percent fear about what Mr. Trump would do if elected president, whereas 23 percent said they are concerned and 34 percent scared about the possibility of a Clinton presidency. Not surprisingly, voters were sharply divided along partisan lines.” Among Republicans only, one third say they’re concerned or scared about Trump.
Hardly ideal, but so what? He’s a divisive figure, as we all know. If he starts winning primaries, that figure could shrink.
Now let’s drill down to the state level. A new Fox News poll in South Carolina has Trump leading with 35 among Republicans, followed by Carson (15) and Cruz and Rubio (14 apiece). South Carolina is a crucial and conservative state, and no one is even close to The Donald.
As for the furor surrounding Trump’s plan to temporarily bar nearly all Muslims from entering the United States, well, it’s helping him. His support in the Fox poll jumped from 30 to 38 percent in the two nights after his comments (though that could fall within the sampling error).
All right, let’s move on to New Hampshire, a maverick state known for known for knocking front-runners off their perch.
A CNN/WMUR survey has Trump way ahead with 32 percent. Rubio has moved up to second place, but at 14 percent. Chris Christie’s town halls have earned him 9 percent, Jeb Bush at 8, John Kasich at 7, Cruz at 6, Carly Fiorina at 5 and Carson at 5.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: “Trump (44%), Cruz (15%), and Rubio (12%) are the top choices among primary voters who regularly listen to conservative talk radio.”
So even if Trump loses Iowa to Cruz, which is entirely possible, he still looks like a juggernaut for now.
So here’s what the pundits say:
Trump has high negatives, so he’s got a ceiling. Sure, he’s dominating a field that’s bigger than a baseball starting lineup, but when it gets down to only a couple of contenders, Cruz or Rubio or Someone Else will be able to consolidate enough support to bring Trump down. And the fierce criticism of his inflammatory statements will eventually erode his support. But don’t worry, if by some miracle he wins the nomination, he’ll go down in flames next November.
Here’s what the pundits should say: We have misjudged this guy time and again since he got in. We thought he would fade pretty quickly. We have consistently predicted that this or that controversial comment would sink his candidacy. We still don’t understand this guy’s appeal.
The polls are ephemeral, to be sure. But given the way the Muslim uproar is playing out, they might be telling, at this point, more than what the commentators say.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.