Heading into the Republican primary debates, Donald Trump finds himself in the anomalous position as the frontrunner who still isn’t taken seriously as a candidate. Despite the fact that all recent polling shows Trump well ahead of the pack, many leading outlets refuse to treat the billionaire real estate developer as anything other than an obnoxious clown. The Huffington Post famously announced that they would cover Trump only as “entertainment” news and not as politics. “Trump's campaign is a sideshow,” Huffington Post editors Ryan Grim and Danny Shea declared. “We won't take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.” Other venues haven’t gone so far, but there is a persistent tendency to dismiss Trump as an entertainer rather than a politician. Yet upon inspection, there is no credible case for seeing Trump as qualitatively different than the other GOP candidates.
At the end of July, Nate Silver, founder of the number-crunching site FiveThirtyEight, made a compelling argument for dismissing Trump. “Donald Trump is not all that popular with Republican voters,” Silver argued. “Sure, he’s in first place in many polls. But Trump is near the back of the pack by another important measure.” The apparent Achilles’ heel: “Trump’s favorability ratings among Republicans are barely better than break-even: 47 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable. Among the 17 Republican candidates, Trump’s net favorable rating, +4, ranks 13th, ahead of only Chris Christie, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki.” By this account, Trump’s frontrunner status was a façade, hiding his low ceiling on his support—one he would hit the moment the GOP field thinned.
While Silver’s arguments made sense, he discounted the possibility that Trump’s favorability ratings could radically improve. That’s exactly what seems to be happening, at least according to one polling company. Monmouth has been tracking Trump’s favorability from April to July. During that period, opinion on Trump started at a -28 percent net approval and leaped to a +17 percent net approval. A new poll conducted by Fox News, the host of Thursday's debate, shows that 56 percent of Republicans said they either "would" or "might" vote for Trump, putting him well ahead of the next candidate, Jeb Bush, at 49 percent. And a new Bloomberg poll found that Trump was the first or second choice of 29 percent of Republican voters, ahead of Bush's 19 percent.
Simply by the polling, Trump’s campaign can’t be sniffed at as a flash in the pan with no hope of growing his support. That may eventually turn out to be true, but let's leave that to the voters—or, at least, the poll respondents—and not the media.
Beyond the numbers, journalists have also made qualitative arguments for ignoring Trump, but they fail to make clear why Trump should be put in a separate category than the other Republican candidates.
In another column, for instance, Silver described Trump as “the world’s greatest troll” and suggested that, as with other trolls, the best strategy for dealing with the candidate was to ignore him. In his willingness to say and do outrageous things to get attention, Trump is surely a world-class troll. But, leaving aside his sheer ability to garner wall-to-wall coverage, how much different is Trump in tenor from Governor Chris Christie, who said the national teachers union deserves a punch in the face? Or from Senator Ted Cruz, who boasts about cooking bacon with a machine gun? Or from Governor Scott Walker, who claims that he doesn’t know if President Barack Obama is a Christian? One could easily compile a list of statements from all the other Republican candidates where they voice equally hair-raising ideas. (In fact, ThinkProgress' Judd Legum already has drawn up such a list.)
Trump might be a troll, but he’s far from the only one, and indeed the Republican presidential primary is shaping up to be a contest to find the best troll. Senator John McCain frets that Trump has “fired up the crazies” in the Republican party. What if “the crazies” aren’t just a fringe group, but the core of the party? With Trump at the head of the pack going into the first debate, isn’t it time to stop thinking of him as an anomaly and start asking if he’s not the real face of the GOP?