One month ago, Donald Trump claimed his first lead in a primary poll when he topped a survey of North Carolina Republicans. That poll, from N.C.’s Public Policy Polling, had Trump getting the nod from 16 percent of respondents, four percent higher than the rest of the field.
“Relax, North Carolina,” one columnist wrote. “Donald Trump isn’t going to win the Republican primary here.”
That columnist was, um, me.
Now, Trump is polling in the mid-20s in state and national polls. One online tracking poll, from Morning Consult, has Trump with a whopping 32 percent after last Thursday’s Republican debate.
We’re still waiting for more traditional post-debate polls to come in, but there’s no doubt Trump continues to toss political convention on its head. Each time he says something nutty – be it about John McCain or Megyn Kelly – more voters seem to sign on instead of saying “enough.”
So about that Trump not winning North Carolina thing?
It’s still true. The same dynamics that were apparent in the N.C. poll are still apparent in the latest polls.
Yes, we’ve learned since that there are more dissaffected, angry Republicans out there than people might have guessed. Or maybe there are just more Apprentice fans. Or fans of celebrities. No matter. Trump also continues to remain the least liked candidate in most polls. And as the field inevitably begins to thin – hello and goodbye, Rick Perry – few of those voters will peel off to Trump.
That will especially be true as the actual primaries approach. Remember, we’ve barely reached kickoff in the 2016 election. Soon, as people begin to engage, the race will become a little more about policy and a little less about personality. It might be fun now to have a candidate who says what he thinks, but ultimately you vote for someone who says what you believe.
That means more voters will need to hear policy thoughts that go beyond calling your opponent’s ideas “stupid.” Trump seems to be acknowledging this – his campaign is ready to release a slew of policy papers. But that comes with some danger, because once he attempts to articulate policy, he’ll also have to start explaining how he’s supported abortion rights, single-payer health care and other policies that are hardly conservative. Yes, some will buy any explanation he offers, but some will need convincing that they can trust him. That calls for a deft touch Trump hasn’t yet shown.
In the end, Donald Trump will be about where he is now – with a passionate base that loves him, but little in the way of undecideds. All of which will make Trump’s supporters confront the question that primary supporters have to answer in any election: How bad do you want to win the White House? There’s a reason mainstream candidates eventually win most nominations. It’s because voters ultimately pull the lever for the person who not only shares their values, but can beat the other party’s candidate.
In North Carolina, it won’t be Trump.
Peter St. Onge