No One Orders Jeb!

One theory of Trump’s popularity on the right is that he has a hard ceiling somewhere short of 40% and certainly far short of fifty percent, so, the idea goes, he will fade once the field gets winnowed down. In any one-on-one contest, he would fare badly. Public Policy Polling tested this idea in the very important state of New Hampshire, and what they found should trouble anyone who thinks Trump is only benefitting from being the most popular candidate in a huge field.

Trump’s advantage over the Republican field is thorough. He leads with Tea Party voters (44%), men (39%), independents (36%), conservatives (36%), voters who are most concerned about electability (35%), both younger voters and seniors (at 34% with each), evangelicals (32%), women (30%), and moderates (29%). Trump has a 56/32 favorability rating and he also leads when you match him with the other Republican hopefuls head to head- it’s 47/39 over Ben Carson, 53/35 over Scott Walker, 53/34 over Marco Rubio, and 56/33 over Jeb Bush.

Two big things jump out from those numbers. The first is that Trump is appealing to a broad swath of Republican voters, from Tea Partiers on the far right to “independents” in the middle. Independents can vote in the Republican primary in New Hampshire if they register on or before election day, so this matters. The second thing is that he’s winning comfortably even when you whittle down the field to one-on-one contests, and he’s beating Jeb worst of all.

New Hampshire has never been overly friendly to the Bush family, but New England Republicans are precisely the kind of voters who are likely to favor an economic elitist over a culture warrior. They’re also about as far from the Mexican border as it is possible to be and still reside in the continental USA. Bush should be winning here as the most electable and least southern-fried of the alternatives. Instead, he’s looking like the last choice.

So, these numbers are not good for the Republican Establishment, unless they want to go to war with Donald Trump or Ben Carson as their standard bearer. And we know that they’d rather chew broken glass or endure a Maoist reeducation camp than do that.

Now, legendary Republican pollster Frank Luntz just conducted a focus group of Trump supporters in the northern Virginia suburbs, and he walked away with what he described as “shaky legs.”

“The Republican leadership needs to wake up and see that the grass roots has abandoned them,” said Luntz, the head of Luntz Global, a top GOP polling and messaging consultancy.

“This is a different cat,” Luntz added. “It’s not like Ross Perot in 1992, where people were simply unhappy with the two major parties; they’re choosing Trump affirmatively. Honestly, my legs are shaking looking at these numbers. All those people who think he’s going to implode are wrong. He’s not going away.”

I’ve mentioned this before, but this is a problem of the right’s own making. Luntz peppered this group with examples of Trump flip-flopping or saying things that no self-respecting Republican would ever say, and it had no effect on them.

It is Trump’s ability to reflect back to voters their most fervent wishes for the nation, Luntz said, that makes the political outsider so dangerous to the rest of the 16 other GOP 2016 hopefuls. The main reason for this, Luntz found, was what he termed a willingness of Trump supporters to live in “an alternative universe” in which any attempt by the media to point out inconsistencies in Trump’s record or position was seen as a politically motivated conspiracy.

“When the media challenges the veracity of his statements, you take his side,” Luntz asked of his focus group. Only one person sat quietly, her hands in her lap, as 28 other arms shot up in agreement.

They’ve been conditioned to not believe independent sources or expert advice. And, eventually, they came to include Fox News, right-wing radio, and other parts of the Mighty Wurlitzer in the suspect camp.

And this is the result:

The group was similarly unfazed by Trump’s reversals of opinion or lack of ideological purity that so often defines primary election contests.

Luntz said this shows “nothing disqualifies Trump” in the eyes of his supporters: “If you wanted to take him down, I would not know how to do it.”

Luntz is an expert in crafting messages and phraseologly that make people like or dislike things more than they otherwise would. A great example is calling the Inheritance Tax a “Death Tax.” But he’s coming up empty with Trump. People don’t care that Trump once supported single-payer health care because he recently called Obamacare “catastrophic.” They don’t care that he once said that the economy does better under Democratic administrations because he recently said that he’d do something about our trade deficits with the Far East. They probably don’t care about his personal life either, and they don’t care about the absurdity of Birtherism because who can say where the president was born? They’re not believing anyone.

But, probably the most important insight that Luntz gained was this one:

Most notably, the intensity of the group’s support for Trump was matched only by their dislike of establishment GOP candidates and politics as usual. At one point, a woman named Rhiannon explained her support of Trump by lamenting that “it appears that there’s only one party.” A whopping 25 of 29 participants in the focus group immediately and heartily agreed with her.

“Nobody is listening to us,” echoed another supporter identified only as ‘Suzanne.’ “(But) he’s listening to us, he knows what we think and he’s successful just like we want to be.”

Or, as Luntz put it, “The Republican leadership needs to wake up and see that the grass roots has abandoned them.”

This is another theme that I’ve been hitting for a long time.

It was always going to be hard to predict when a collective light-bulb would go on on the right and they’d realize that the plutocrats who run the GOP don’t want to fly their daughters to Europe for an abortion and don’t want a wall to close the border with Mexico and don’t have a problem with gay marriage and don’t believe there’s a War on Christmas and don’t want to do a thing about job loss resulting from globalization and free trade and, ultimately, don’t even have a big problem with the policies of the Democratic Party so long as the party is restrained a bit by a Republican Congress. What these plutocrats mainly affirmatively want is to reduce the scraps that are going to their most ardent supporters in terms of retirement security, access to affordable health care, and support with education and housing.

What was easier to predict was that when the light-bulb did go on, the long-duped rightwing base would not so much turn on the plutocrats and the politicians they dole out as options, as they would look to take over the apparatus of power for themselves. They don’t like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and Jeb Bush, but they aren’t going to reject rightwing politics. They’re going to try to force the party to live up to the promises they made. It’s supposed to be a Conservative Movement party, and the fact that that has always been a facade just means that the facade must now be removed so that everyone can see what’s really on the menu.

Donald Trump is the best-selling entree. No one orders Jeb!.

What could change that?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.