One of the more unusual aspects of Donald Trump's three-plus months at the top of the Republican presidential field is that to so many, myself included, it still seems like it's only temporary. A number of people who spend a lot of time looking at the numbers have, since he took the lead in July, written about the various reasons why his lead would be temporary — again, myself included. People who rely on poll data were saying, in some sense, "I'm going with the numbers in my gut."
But the real numbers, including those in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, support the idea that Trump will continue to lead and that he could win the nomination.
There's the top-line number, of course, which shows Trump with a lead over the rest of the field. Nearly a third of Republican voters pick Trump as their candidate, followed by 22 percent who choose Ben Carson. As we noted last week, those two share a base of support, meaning that if one were to drop out, the other could and probably would pick up much of his support. In other words: Trump has some room to grow.
What's more, his lead has actually been much more stable this year than Mitt Romney's was in the latter half of 2011. Trump has led consistently for more than three months. In the last six months of 2011, Romney led for only a week or two at a time.
Then there's the question of whom voters expect to win the nomination. In 2012, the New York Times reported on a study demonstrating that asking voters who they expected to win could be a better predictor of an election's outcome than the actual horse race.
So whom do Republicans expect to win? Trump.
Notice that this has changed a lot since a Post-ABC News survey in March. At that point, Jeb Bush was widely expected to win. But a lot has changed in the race since then — and, by this point, we're a lot closer to when voting starts.
The wonks at FiveThirtyEight had an online conversation trying to figure out Trump's chances. It's worth a read, but the point made by Nate Silver is that we're very early in the contest, however long it seems as though it has been going on. He points to Google search interest in the primary, noting that it peaked in early 2012 before that election — not in 2011. The peak, in other words, coincided with Romney solidifying his lead.
Part of that, too, is voters deciding who they think can actually win in November. In head-to-head match-ups with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Trump consistently fares worse than other Republican candidates — but that isn't universal. A Fox News poll earlier this month showed Trump beating Clinton by five points (though usually Clinton is ahead). There is still a big enough pool of Republicans who don't like Trump and who wouldn't vote for him, that it's easy to imagine a time when those voters coalesce around someone else.
That's likely a key reason that Trump's held his lead longer than Romney did in 2011. With so many candidates in the race, Republicans opposed to Trump have divvied up their votes a dozen different ways.
As I said at the outset, Trump's lead still seems temporary. In part because of the short-term nature of political writing, though, I've also pointed out weaknesses in the numbers that have vanished in short order. Candidates in the crowded Republican field don't really have the luxury of waiting around to see how things shake out, but everyone else does. And that's probably the best advice we can offer.
Trump leads now and has led longer than many thought he would. But we'll see.