Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign stop at Iowa Central Community College on Nov. 12, 2015 in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

Has Trump finally gone off the rails?

Updated

Trump goes off the rails in Iowa… The immigration fight we always knew would define the GOP primary is entering a new phase… An extra large sample of NBC/WSJ data gives us a deep, unique look at the 2016 landscape… Why Ben Carson and Marco Rubio are so dominant right now… The triumph of the outsiders, as insiders falter or stall… Who’s stable, who’s fragile? … Talking to two totally different electorates… Another Mitt Romney balloon… House retirement-palooza… and the return of Sister Souljah.  

Trump Goes Off the Rails

It’s easy to have become a little numb to Donald Trump’s theatrics on the trail over the last five months, but his performance last night in Iowa shook them right back into perspective. NBC’s Katy Tur reports that, during a 96-minute speech, Trump compared Ben Carson’s self-described “pathological temper” to a “disease” like child molestation (“If you’re a child molester, a sick puppy, a child molester, there’s no cure for that - there’s only one cure and we don’t want to talk about that cure, that’s the ultimate cure, no there’s two, there’s death and the other thing.”) Personal attacks are one thing; baselessly comparing an opponent (who is almost universally popular with your own base!) to a child molester is jaw-dropping.

Whether Trump was tired, frustrated, cranky, whatever – this off-the-rails attack may have been the best illustration yet of why so many folks believe Trump can’t make it over the nomination finish line. While most of his other attacks on rivals – “low energy,” “puppets,” etc. – have played into narratives with some grain of truth to them, this one is just mean-spirited word association accusing a well-liked political figure of literally *the worst possible thing* a person can do. And this comes after plenty of reports that Trump was toning down his rhetoric, acting like a more mature candidate and thinking more strategically about his path. The question is: How and where could Trump’s attacks on the field’s most popular candidate hurt him? And is “child molester” finally the threshold for his bombastic language to start wearing on voters?

The immigration fight enters a new phase

It’s always been clear that immigration was going to be THE wedge issue for Republicans in 2016, but it really exploded onto the campaign trail in full view yesterday, with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz blasting each other over their stances on the 2013 immigration battle in the Senate.  Welcome to the new normal, folks. In a Trump-less world, Cruz probably would have been positioned to be the field’s staunchest conservative on immigration, but he was outflanked the minute Trump entered the race. This will be the defining issue for the campaign’s major players: If Rubio isn’t the nominee, immigration will be the reason why; if Cruz is the nominee, immigration will be the reason why; if Trump survives, immigration will be the reason why.  The trouble for the GOP: They’re talking to a primary electorate that is getting whiter, while the general electorate is heading in the opposite direction. (More on that below.)

Two Teflon Men?

We’ve got a new, exclusive deep-dive analysis of two months-worth of NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling, comprising a huge sample of a combined 999 GOP primary voters and 1,030 Democratic primary voters. This EXTRA large sample allows us to properly examine the GOP electorate, an electorate we’ve segmented into four distinct categories. And here’s the storyline we find the most fascinating: Out of all of the GOP candidates, only TWO show strength in ALL FOUR categories: Values voters, Tea Party backers, Libertarians and Moderate/Chamber of Commerce Republicans. A majority of voters in each of those four categories say they can see themselves supporting Ben Carson and Marco Rubio. ALL of the other candidates have at least one weak spot where they don’t score 50% or higher among those voters. Trump, Fiorina and Cruz are all strong with Tea Party backers but struggle badly with moderates. Jeb Bush falters in every category EXCEPT moderates. Bottom line: In this field, with the GOP electorate as divided as it is, Rubio and Carson are the only two candidates who seem to have a real chance at uniting the party right now.

The Continued Triumph of the Outsiders

Here’s another storyline from our big data trove: How much MORE acceptable the “outsider” GOP candidates have become to the Republican electorate since early this year. Between March and July, just 41 percent of all the GOP primary voters we surveyed said they could imagine supporting Ben Carson, and just 37 percent said the same of Donald Trump. Between September and October? A whopping 75 percent could picture backing Carson, and 57 percent can see themselves casting a ballot for Trump. Carly Fiorina has fared well too, with 54 percent finding her acceptable in the later part of the year, versus just 31 percent earlier in the spring and summer.

The Insiders – Not So Much

The flip side of the outsider narrative is that the candidates who HAVE held public office aren’t basking in the same sunshine as those who haven’t. Since earlier this year, the share of GOP primary voters who say they could consider backing Jeb Bush is down from 60 percent to just 49 percent. And the two candidates getting a lot of play in the current news cycle as possible last-men-standing on the Republican side, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, have been remarkably consistent all year. Cruz’s “acceptability” number is at 52 percent – up from 48 percent earlier this year. And Rubio’s is 63 percent - - up from 58 percent.

Stability vs. fragility

So, who are the big GOP winners, based on all this data? A lot of it comes down to how stable voters’ impressions of each candidate might be. And much of that comes with the GOP electorate’s knowledge about each one. As pollster Peter Hart put it, Bush may be in the toughest spot. “People know so much. His feet are in cement,” says Hart. In other words, with a set impression of Bush and his family, there simply isn’t a lot of room for mobility. Between Trump and Carson, Hart says, the advantage goes to Trump, who has high name ID and a lot of media exposure – and is still running strong. “The stability argument is greater for Trump,” he says. “The fragility for Carson is greater.”

Explaining the primary storylines

So often, when we here at First Read write about the two primary races, the policy debates seem like they’re two COUNTRIES apart, let alone two parties. And the data from our pollsters gives us a very good sense of why: Both the Democratic and Republican primary electorates simply don’t look a lot like the electorate at large. To wit:

  • Ninety-two percent of GOP primary voters are white – compared to 72 percent of the general electorate in 2012. Sixty-nine percent of Republican primary voters consider themselves conservative, while 25 percent say they’re moderate; compare that to 35 percent and 41 percent, respectively, for the overall voting pool.
  • The Democratic primary electorate is 62 percent white and 38 percent non-white, while the electorate overall is 72 percent white and 26 percent non-white. And half of Democrats planning to vote in the primaries say they consider themselves liberal, while only about quarter of those who will cast a general election vote next November say the same.

The Never-Ending Mitt Story

This is starting to become a tried-and-true barometer of the nervousness of GOP elites: The rerun Mitt Romney comeback trial balloon. From the Washington Post last night: “According to other Republicans, some in the party establishment are so desperate to change the dynamic that they are talking anew about drafting Romney — despite his insistence that he will not run again. Friends have mapped out a strategy for a late entry to pick up delegates and vie for the nomination in a convention fight, according to the Republicans who were briefed on the talks, though Romney has shown no indication of reviving his interest.” For Democrats, Joe Biden speculation was the pressure valve on anxiety about their nominating process; for Republicans, it’s – despite a crowded field that most primary voters say they are satisfied with – these floated Romney theories.

Heading for the exits

It’s that time of the cycle. There have been FOUR House retirements in the last week, with three getting formally announced today. The retirees: Texas Democrat Ruben Hinojosa, California Democrat Sam Farr, Pennsylvania Republican Joe Pitts and Wyoming Republican Cynthia Lummis. And guess who might be interesting in succeeding Lummis? Per the AP, Liz Cheney says she’s seriously considering a run.  

And finally, Sister Souljah is back

Yes, THAT Sister Souljah, of Clinton-era fame. And she had this to say about Hillary Clinton (h/t TIME): “’I want to control what I say so that I can be quoted properly. I have this past history of being misquoted or misunderstood.’ She slides an index card across the table. It reads, ‘She reminds me too much of the slave plantation white wife of the white ‘Master.’ She talks down to people, is condescending and pandering. She even talked down to the Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama, while she was under his command!’”

Additional reporting by Carrie Dann.

Donald Trump

Has Trump finally gone off the rails?

Updated