Why Trump's surge among GOP voters matters

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks on stage to speak before a crowd of 3,500 on July 11, 2015, in Phoenix, Ariz. (Photo by Ross D. Franklin/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks on stage to speak before a crowd of 3,500 on July 11, 2015, in Phoenix, Ariz.
When Donald Trump started faring well in Republican presidential polling in June, some observers suggested it was a post-announcement bounce that would quickly fade. After all, it's a pattern we've seen more than once this year -- national candidates kick off their campaign, get a burst of attention, and see their standing temporarily rise.
But in Trump's case, it's been a full month since he announced his White House run, and USA Today reported yesterday afternoon, his bounce remains on the upswing.

Donald Trump has surged to the top of a crowded Republican presidential field, a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds, but the brash billionaire is also the weakest competitor among the top seven GOP candidates against Democrat Hillary Clinton. In the nationwide survey, Trump leads at 17% and former Florida governor Jeb Bush is second at 14%, the only competitors who reach double digits.

To be sure, 17% may not sound like a dominant position in a primary, but Trump is not only leading the GOP pack, his 17% is stronger than the support for Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul combined.
What's more, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, released this morning, shows Trump's popularity among Republicans surging to new heights -- his favorability rating among GOP voters has jumped from 23% to 57% in just two months. A brief, post-announcement bump this isn't.
Among voters overall, of course, Trump remains deeply unpopular -- the gap between the American mainstream and the GOP base is growing -- but the mainstream will have no real say in the Republican nominating process.
I've cautioned against taking these early national polls too seriously, but there's a reason data like this matters. In fact, there are two.
It's not because of the results' predictive value. I generally don't find arguments from Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham persuasive, but their recent claims about national polling at this stage in the race happen to be entirely correct -- the surveys tell us little about what to expect once voters actually start casting ballots and attending caucuses.
But let's not be too quick to dismiss the polls out of hand. Specifically when it comes to Trump, we're learning something important about the Republican base in 2015 and the degree to which a clownish, embarrassing television personality can get ahead, not with a credible national platform, but with racially charged, xenophobic rhetoric.
Even with his polling surge, few seem to believe Trump will be a serious contender for the GOP presidential nomination, but more important is the fact that there's something ugly lurking in Republican politics; it's come to the fore; and it's rallying behind a candidate more credible observers, inside the Republican Party and out, consider ridiculous.
What's more, because of the way the GOP debates are taking shape, national polls like these are arguably more important than they've ever been. These national results -- as compared to results in early nominating states, where the campaigns spend most of their time -- will dictate which candidates will qualify to participate in Republican debates, and candidates who are excluded from the stage are likely to struggle badly when billing themselves as credible contenders for the nomination.
The first debate, organized by Fox News and the RNC, will be held three weeks from tomorrow. In New Hampshire, meanwhile, the Union Leader newspaper reported last night on a separate event that will be held three days prior.

A Voters First Forum for Republican presidential candidates, co-sponsored by the New Hampshire Union Leader and leading newspapers in Iowa and South Carolina, will be held on Monday evening, Aug. 3, at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. It will be broadcast nationally by C-SPAN as well as by sponsoring Iowa and South Carolina TV stations and on New Hampshire radio by WGIR and an iHeart radio hookup. [...] Publishers of the Union Leader, the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier, and the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gazette said in a joint statement that it is important that voters in the three states that lead off the nomination process have an opportunity to see the candidates together on a level playing field at this early stage.

As for which candidates will participate in which events, watch this space.