A PUBLICITY STUNT GONE HORRIBLY AWRY…. The headline on Chris Cillizza’s morning round-up is a fairly common sentiment: “Donald Trump. Seriously?

In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, businessman and reality television star Donald Trump finished second behind only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in a hypothetical 2012 Republican primary heat.

Trump’s 17 percent tied with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and put him well in front of other well- known GOP contenders like former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

And, among those who identify themselves as tea party supporters, Trump is actually in the lead with 20 percent, followed by Romney at 17 percent and Huckabee at 14 percent.

What gives?

Cillizza ran through some plausible explanations, including Trump’s high name recognition and a perception that he’s been successful in business (despite multiple bankruptcy filings).

Perhaps. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that Trump has been running around to every media outlet he can find, spewing conspiracy theories and bizarre ideas that resonate with easily-fooled extremists. And wouldn’t you know it, polls suddenly show Republican voters gravitating to the guy.

This isn’t complicated — the GOP base includes a big chunk of very strange people. When a clownish television personality plays to their worst instincts, these folks are inclined to like what they see.

With this in mind, there’s no point in taking Trump’s “candidacy” seriously. I still think this is just an elaborate publicity stunt, closer to a practical joke than an actual campaign. Indeed, even the right-wing fringe will balk when they learn Trump was a pro-choice advocate of universal health care, a donor to Democratic candidates, and a supporter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But what matters here is what the latest polls tell us about the hysterical wing of the Republican Party. A reality-show personality has been whining incessantly about the president’s birth certificate, and a sizeable contingent of the GOP base has decided that’s enough to earn their support.

Trump’s a sideshow. The real story here is the madness that’s overcome a few too many Republican voters.

Postscript: Credible GOP presidential hopefuls like Tim Pawlenty and Haley Barbour have to be especially annoyed with developments like these. They’re desperate to get some attention and improve their own name recognition, but are struggling at this early stage because ridiculous distractions (Trump, Bachmann, et al) are sucking up all the media oxygen.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.