Will Donald Trump drop in the polls following his Thursday night debate performance? To be honest, I have no clue. And I don’t care nearly as much about his horse-race numbers — whether he’s leading the 17-candidate field or not — as I do about his favorability ratings among Republican voters.
Watch Trump’s favorability numbers if you really want to know how the debate affected his candidacy.
There have always been presidential candidates with factional support. No one really thought Ron Paul was going to be the Republican nominee in 2012 even as he finished third in the Iowa caucuses and second in the New Hampshire primary. That’s because we knew most Republican voters didn’t agree with his views, as evidenced by Paul’s -7 net favorability rating in a CBS News/New York Times poll taken just after those early contests.
What’s made the Trump rise so interesting isn’t that he has corralled a small plurality in the polls but that Republicans overall have grown to view him more positively. According to Monmouth University polls, Trump’s favorable rating rose from 20 percent in June to 52 percent just last week.
A small majority of GOP voters liked Trump.
That’s still pretty bad for a candidate running for the GOP nomination, but Trump’s increased popularity makes it harder for other candidates to go after him — and more plausible that he could expand his horse-race support. We saw that in Thursday’s debates: Even after Carly Fiorina mocked Trump for his phone calls with Bill Clinton, she softened the blow by saying: “He is the party’s front-runner right now, and good for him. I think he’s tapped into an anger that people feel.”
But if Trump’s favorability numbers fall, even if he maintains part of his base, the other candidates will have freer rein to criticize him or simply ignore his voters, knowing that they represent only a minority of the Republican electorate. That would be welcome news to a party that desperately wants to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Otherwise, Republicans may continue to just jab at Trump, making it more likely that general election voters will tie Trump and his comments on Mexican immigrants and women to the Republican Party at large.