It began as whispers in hushed corners: Could it ever happen? And now, just three months from the Iowa caucuses, members of the Republican establishment are starting to give voice to an increasingly common belief that Donald Trump, once dismissed as joke, a carnival barker, and a circus freak, might very well win the nomination. “Trump is a serious player for the nomination at this time,” says Ed Rollins, who served as the national campaign director for Reagan’s 1984 reelection and as campaign chairman for Mike Huckabee in 2008.
For three months, we've all heard all kinds of assumptions about Donald Trump's Republican presidential campaign. He'd peaked. His act had worn thin. His lead was simply unsustainable.
And yet, the latest polling continues to speak for itself. Consider the results of the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, released last night.
1. Donald Trump: 25% (up four points from September)
2. Ben Carson: 22% (up two points)
3. Marco Rubio: 13% (up two points)
4. Ted Cruz: 9% (up four points)
5. Jeb Bush: 8% (up one point)
6. Carly Fiorina: 7% (down four points)
The remaining candidates are at 3% or lower, including Chris Christie, who has seen his support steadily drop in recent months, falling to just 1% in this poll. Trump's 25% showing, meanwhile, represents the strongest support any GOP candidate has in any NBC/WSJ poll this year.
A new CNN poll offers similar results:
1. Donald Trump: 27% (up three points from September)
2. Ben Carson: 22% (up eight points)
3. Jeb Bush: 8% (down one point)
3. Marco Rubio: 8% (down three points)
The remaining candidates are at 5% or lower. Fiorina, in particular, has seen her standing collapse, dropping from 15% to 4% in the CNN poll just over the course of one month.
Regardless, the burning question in Republican circles is starting to shift from "When will Trump falter?" to "What if he doesn't?"
As Rachel noted on the show last night, National Review published a striking piece yesterday noting that the GOP establishment, long confident that Trump's backing would be fleeting, is starting to reevaluate its assumptions.
The same piece quoted Steve Schmidt, an MSNBC political analyst who managed John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, saying, “Trump has sustained a lead for longer than there are days left” before voting begins in Iowa.
This isn't to say Trump is necessarily the likely nominee; plenty of candidates who were ahead in the October before the primaries have seen those leads evaporate.
But ask yourself this: if you removed the names from the poll results and look solely at the numbers, how quick would you be to dismiss the one candidate who's stood atop every poll for the last three months?