Over the course of several months, we've learned a fair amount about Donald Trump's Republican support. We now know, for example, that his strong showing wasn't just a temporary fluke driven by high name-recognition. We also know his backing is geographically broad, it's bolstered by GOP voters without college degrees, and it's driven by conservatives who see the New York developer as the most electable Republican, the conventional wisdom notwithstanding.
What we don't know, however, is whether these folks intend to show up when it counts.
There's no point in denying or downplaying Trump's dominance; poll after poll has positioned him as the clear frontrunner. But because Trump is a non-traditional amateur candidate, and he's appealing to far-right activists who are sometimes on the fringes, there's a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the manifestation of his support. Are they Trump backers or Trump voters?
The New York Times
published an interesting piece
this week on the challenge of a first-time candidate "translating a personality-driven campaign to the voting booth."
[In Iowa], about six weeks away, Mr. Trump has fallen behind in the nuts and bolts of organizing. [...] A successful ground game is crucial in Iowa because of the state's complicated method of caucus voting, but the Trump campaign has lagged in reaching some of its own benchmarks. Mr. Trump's Iowa director predicted that he would recruit a leader for each of the state's 1,681 Republican precincts by Thanksgiving. Instead, the first major training session for precinct leaders, heavily promoted in emails and conference calls, drew only about 80 people to West Des Moines last weekend, with about 50 participating online. Some of Mr. Trump's Republican rivals have spent months calling and knocking on doors to identify potential supporters to draw them out to caucuses, but Mr. Trump does not appear to have invested in this crucial "voter ID" strategy until recently.
The good news for Team Trump is that it's collected email addresses from Iowans who attend his rallies. The bad news is, Team Trump has "only recently" begun putting that database to use -- which a Democratic strategist characterized to the New York Times as "malpractice."
Rand Paul's Iowa director added, "It's easy for someone to sit on a phone when they get a polling call and say, 'I like candidate X.' It's far different to get that person out of a La-Z-Boy to hop in a car and avoid the black ice and head to their local firehouse."
That's well said, and it's not an unreasonable area of concern for Trump's improbable candidacy. The evidence is overwhelming that his message is resonating with many Republicans, but polls don't generally convey depth of commitment. It's one thing to register a preference in a poll or attend an event to see a colorful television personality; it's something else to show up for a caucus or a primary.
Just so we're clear, I'm not predicting that these Trump supporters are, en masse, going to stick to their sofas once voting begins in earnest, so much as I'm saying there's some uncertainty surrounding his candidacy. With big leads in national polling, Trump may look like the presumptive Republican nominee, but these lingering questions give many observers pause.
Much of the evidence is anecdotal, but this
Bloomberg Politics piece stood out yesterday.
An unscientific survey of more than 100 people, conducted by Bloomberg Politics during brief interviews scattered throughout an auditorium where Trump spoke Saturday in eastern Iowa, suggests his fans in the critical early state aren't all political newcomers, with about half saying they've attended the caucuses before. That's important because past participation is viewed by political strategists as one of the best indicators of future attendance at an event that's more complex than voting in a primary and sometimes intimidating to the uninitiated. To try to determine the depth of their familiarity with the caucuses, the verbal survey also asked participants if they knew the date when the precinct-level meetings will be held. Fifty people surveyed at Trump's rally in Cedar Rapids said they've attended the caucuses in the past, while 51 said they've never gone. A smaller number -- 44 of 101 -- were able to name the date for the caucuses, Feb. 1.
Trump likes to claim he's creating a "movement." We'll know more in about six weeks whether the movement's foot-soldiers are serious.