Donald Trump’s official campaign slogan—“Make America Great Again”—is plastered on his campaign signs and emblazoned on his questionable campaign swag. His unofficial one, though, can be found in the rambling stump speeches, Twitter tirades, and combative cable news hits that have come to define his campaign: “I’m leading in every poll.”
That catchphrase—or some ratings-based version of it—is both a rallying cry to his supporters, of which there are many, and a comeback to his critics, of which there are more. Expect to hear it with far greater frequency as the Donald looks to regain his reality-star mojo after a rocky stretch that included a lackluster performance at the second GOP debate, his latest birther-themed controversy, and anecdotal evidence that he’s no longer packing ballrooms to capacity on the campaign trail. It’s his best and perhaps only defense in the face of a political press that—from Fox News to Politico to the New York Times—lately smells Trump-branded blood in the GOP water.
The good news for Trump: He still has his beloved polls to point to. The bad: His lead on the field isn’t nearly as impressive as it once was.
According to RealClearPolitics rolling national average, Trump entered September nearly 15 points ahead of his closest rival, Ben Carson, and 17 ahead of second runner-up Jeb Bush. Today he’s up only about 8 points on Carson, and 12 points on Carly Fiorina, who surged to third place after a strong showing at last week’s CNN debate.
Those two competing narratives—Trump’s support is holding mostly steady in the polls; his lead isn’t—can also be seen if we break out the first batch of national surveys that were conducted after the Sept. 16 CNN debate and compare them with past surveys taken by the same polling outfits:
Fox News then (8/13): Trump at 25 percent, up 13 points on Carson and 15 on Ted Cruz
Fox News now (9/22): Trump at 26 percent, up 8 on Carson and 17 on Fiorina and Marco Rubio
Bloomberg then (8/2): Trump at 21 percent, up 11 on Bush and 13 on Scott Walker
Bloomberg now (9/21): Trump at 21 percent, up 5 on Carson and 8 on Bush
Quinnipiac then (8/25): Trump at 28 percent, up 16 on Carson and 21 on Bush, Cruz, and Rubio
Quinnipiac now (9/21): Trump at 25 percent, up 8 on Carson and 13 on Fiorina
CNN then (9/8): Trump at 32 percent, up 13 on Carson and 23 on Bush
CNN now (9/19): Trump at 24 percent, up 9 on Fiorina and 10 on Carson
The GOP establishment will look at those polls and hope that Trump has finally found his polling ceiling. But they should also be terrified of another possibility—that Trump has likewise found his polling floor. The real estate tycoon won’t win the GOP nomination if he’s already reached his polling peak. He’ll have no trouble, however, causing more made-for-TV chaos if roughly 1 in 5 Republicans continues to stick around even as a campaign built on surprise and shock has started to look, well, a little predictable.
This is the point in the post where by now I would normally have given you my usual spiel about the limits of what these surveys can tells us. Those polls-don’t-predict-the-future caveats are still necessary in the big picture, but not nearly as much in the smaller portrait of Trump. The Donald and his fans, after all, care as much about disclaimers as they do about decorum.
More than any other candidate’s, Trump’s campaign is predicated on the present. He is promising his supporters he’ll win next year by telling them he’s winning now. As long he still has the polls to point to—and the “GOP front-runner” honorific that comes with them—his critics can pan his debate performance and question his incoherent campaign all they want, but the best we can say is that Trump will lose, not that he is losing. And to that, the Donald and his supporters will simply respond, Scoreboard! and carry on about their day. That’s not going to change unless someone—be it an outsider like Carly or an insider like Jeb—finally knocks him from his perch.
Given that, it’s still premature to look at his shrinking lead and say we’re currently watching the beginning of the end for Trump. I think, given his relatively static support, we might just be looking at the end of the beginning. The big question is what happens next.