When it’s time to vote, Republicans usually choose an “establishment” candidate to lead their party: George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012.
Part of that is the strength of the people who raise money and push for specific policies, but part of it is the strength of establishment picks. These candidates fit a profile. They stand at the center of their parties with ties to the three “legs” of the modern GOP: social conservatives, national security conservatives, and anti-tax conservatives. They’re not always strong with every group, but they are—or they become—acceptable through the course of the primary. They may not hold moderate positions, but they sound moderate and appeal to ordinary American voters.
That candidate, or a version of that candidate, exists in the 2016 Republican primary. It’s Jeb Bush, it’s Sen. Marco Rubio, it’s Gov. John Kasich—it’s even Gov. Chris Christie. But they aren’t the leaders of the race. They aren’t even close. The leader is Donald Trump, a real estate mogul turned reality TV star turned nativist agitator.
On the surface, Trump is the antithesis of a traditional Republican nominee. It’s why I’ve been deeply skeptical of his chances. But look beyond Trump’s affect—his brash, “carnival barker” approach to politics—and it’s clear that, ideologically, he is the only candidate who fully fits the profile of the typical Republican nominee. Trump stands at the center of the GOP. He is the median Republican.
Now, I know the argument against Trump’s odds in the Republican primary. Even in our era of weak parties, elites have tremendous influence, and they don’t choose people like Trump, who stand largely outside the party system.
At the same time, voters matter, too. And while they usually ratify the establishment pick, they can also go off path, which is what we’ve seen with Trump.
We’re six months into his candidacy, and he still leads. Not by a little, and not by a bit, but by a lot. In the Huffington Post average of national Republican presidential polling, Trump leads with 32 percent support. His next closest competitor, Ben Carson, holds just 18.5 percent of GOP primary voters. And while it’s true Trump hit turbulance after the presidential debates, he’s recovered in the weeks since. Donald Trump is still on top.
This is true in almost every state where pollsters are talking to Republican voters. Trump leads with 31 percent support in New Jersey, 27 percent in South Carolina, 27 percent in Florida, 26 percent in heavily-polled New Hampshire, 23 percent in Ohio and Pennsylvania, 22 percent in Texas, and 20 percent in California. Where he doesn’t lead—Iowa, Georgia, and North Carolina—Carson holds the command. You can chalk some of this to media, lack of attention, and a paucity of polls. But not all of it. Consistently, across different regions of the country, Republicans are telling the people who ask that they want Trump for their party’s nomination.
If Trump were a sideshow like Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain, or a factional candidate like Carson or Mike Huckabee, this wouldn’t be true. But he isn’t. More than any other candidate in this race, Trump holds beliefs and positions that appeal to each part of the Republican Party.
On national security and defense, he’s a measured hawk. He won’t invade for the sake of invading—he opposed the Iraq war, as he’ll remind you—but he’ll take the fight to the enemy, when necessary. “When you’re weak and ineffective, bad stuff does happen. And that’s what we’re seeing,” Trump said in a recent speech. His promise? To “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and capture its oil fields. All of this is in line with Republican voters—in a recent Reuters poll, 36 percent said he was best equipped to handle terrorism.
On taxes, he’s in the Republican mainstream. His tax cuts would slash rates across the board, with the largest gains for the wealthiest Americans. It goes beyond Bush’s plan, in particular, to offer a lower rate for individuals and corporations. Rhetoric aside—he routinely hits hedge fund managers for paying low taxes—Trump is in line with supply-side and anti-tax conservatives who want less revenue for government programs. That said, Trump rejects cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Retirement programs—the bulk of the benefits that touch actual Republican voters—are sacrosanct. And this as well puts him in the center of the GOP as it exists.
Trump has the most trouble on social conservatism. He won’t oppose same-sex marriage—he almost certainly supports it—and until his run for president, he was pro-choice. Now, he says he’s “pro-life with exceptions” for rape, incest, and the health of the mother, which puts him out of step with anti-abortion activists but in line with a substantial minority of Republicans.
And then there’s immigration. It cuts across every other issue in the Republican Party, touching national security, the economy, and the fabric of our national culture. GOP elites, going back to Ronald Reagan, have supported more permissive immigration laws; George W. Bush tried to pass comprehensive reform, Sen. John McCain supported it, and most recently, Rubio tried to craft a bill. But substantial numbers of Republican voters have always opposed immigration, and in the last five years, it’s become a driving force in conservative politics. To win the nomination, for instance, Mitt Romney had to renounce “amnesty” and position himself against any immigration reform.
Trump’s core message is on immigration. It’s the reason he’s running. He wants to close the borders to “illegals” and deport most of the 11 million unauthorized migrants to the country. “They have to go,” as he often says. If Republican elites are to the left of their voters on immigration, Trump is simpatico with the base. And it shows in polls—49 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say that Trump can best handle immigration. Fifty-five percent agree with his statement that Mexico sends people that bring “crime” and “rapists,” and 77 percent disagree with Bush’s statement that unauthorized immigration is an “act of love.”
You can see Trump’s position as the median Republican in the composition of his supporters. Twenty percent call themselves “moderate” or “liberal,” 65 percent say they’re “conservative,” and just 13 percent call themselves “very conservative.” Age wise, about half are between 45 and 64, while 34 percent are over 65. And in terms of income, his support trends toward working- and middle-class Republicans. These are GOP voters. They are the mainstream.
Yes, Trump is unacceptable to a large share of Republican voters. Yes, he has high unfavorables. But his beliefs—and especially those on immigration—draw Republicans from all sides of the party. Let’s put it this way: If Trump were more polished, if he looked and sounded more like Rubio and Bush, we would see him, correctly, as a mainstream candidate for president. Set aside his affect, and Trump sits at the center of the GOP, and that is why he’s winning.