I talked with Republican wise men last week – sober establishment strategists who have seen many presidential campaigns come and go – to ask them how long the improbable popularity of Donald Trump can last. Reassure me, I said: He can’t actually win, right?
Their answers surprised me.
“It’s not inconceivable,” Vin Weber, a former congressman (and Jeb Bush supporter) told me. “It doesn’t look as if he’s going to implode any time soon … . It’s hard for me to say this, but he actually seems to be getting better as a candidate.”
“Trump has put himself on the short list of five or six names who could win the nomination,” said another GOP operative who insisted on anonymity because he’s working for one of those other candidates. “It’s not impossible that he could win.”
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Until a few weeks ago, the conventional wisdom held that Trump was merely a summer fling for angry voters, a protest candidate whose insults and braggadocio would soon impose a ceiling on his support. But recent polls suggest that Trump has raised that ceiling.
He’s leading almost every horse race poll – although at this stage, those numbers are utterly unreliable as predictors of real voter behavior. (At this point in 2011, the polls were led by Texas Gov. Rick Perry; in 2007, by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.)
More telling are polls that measure whether Trump has made himself acceptable to Republicans.
A Quinnipiac University poll last month found that 30 percent of GOP voters had an unfavorable view of Trump – worse than most other candidates but a big improvement from the 52 percent that Trump scored in May.
In Iowa, where the first GOP contest is held, the percentage of likely Republican caucus-goers who say they could never vote for Trump has fallen from 58 percent in May to 29 percent, according to a Des Moines Register-Bloomberg News poll.
What has Trump done right? He began by grabbing voters’ attention with a naked appeal to anti-immigrant anger. But he’s broadened his pitch with broadsides against a “corrupt” political system, Wall Street financiers and corporations that send U.S. jobs overseas.
There are even signs that he might ease up on the insults – glimpses of a new, more statesmanlike Donald. “I have great respect for a lot of the other people on the stage,” he said Friday.
My GOP wise men outlined two possible scenarios: one for a Trump victory, the other for defeat.
Trump could win, they suggested, if he rolls out more policy proposals to demonstrate that he has actually thought about what he’d do as president (he’s already promised one on tax reform), and if he survives increased scrutiny from the media as well as attacks from other candidates (Bush has already started in).
Trump will lose, they said, if he can’t handle criticism of his record or his paper-thin positions on many issues. He recently bobbled a question from conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, admitting testily that he didn’t know the names of the leaders of al-Qaida or Islamic State.
Less likely, he could simply run out of new things to say. “You have to presume he can’t dominate the media for five more months this way,” Weber said. “What happens to him when the attention starts to dry up?”
Trump will face a tough early test in Iowa, where the Republican caucuses have been dominated by Christian social conservatives – not his natural constituency.
“If he comes in third or fourth in Iowa, he could lose his cool,” one strategist said. “If he looks like a sore loser and says he was robbed, that could cause the floor to fall out.”
On the other hand, another strategist told me, “The Southern primaries (in February and March) are a huge opportunity for him. If he wins enough of those, the rest of the field will collapse because their money will dry up. At that point, it becomes Trump versus someone else, an anti-Trump – probably Rubio, Walker, Kasich or Bush. And then it’s a real race.”
On balance, a Trump victory still appears unlikely; his conservative credentials are too weak, his political experience too thin. “I’m hearing people talk about him as if he were the inevitable nominee,” Weber said. “We aren’t there yet.”
But Republican Party’s grandees are glumly acknowledging that America’s love affair with Trump is more than a summer romance – maybe a lot more.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org