Not many people — pundits, journalists, politicians — predicted Donald Trump would maintain his lead this far into the presidential election. When he announced his candidacy in June, reactions ranged from questioning his sincerity to brazen mockery. Yet as the Iowa caucuses draw near, Trump's momentum is only gaining steam — he is, after all, the leading Republican canditate with a polling average of 34.8 percent. "How can this be?" many wonder. How can he remain a galvanizing candidate for many Americans, despite his bigotry and blatant hypocrisy?
To understand the answer to this question is to understand how his popularity makes sense within the context of fear. Americans are scared of the threat from ISIS, scared that they might lose their jobs to immigrants, and wary of shady politicians. His reckless rhetoric is a familiar tactic. Historically dictators, fascists, and tyrants have capitalized on fear as a viable weapon to push a precarious agenda — and Trump is not the only modern example of the far right's global ascent. Nativist and xenophobic party support has multiplied across Europe — especially in France, Germany, and Greece, where immigrants are pouring in from a war-torn Syria. When people are afraid, they want someone to blame and Trump has singled out minorities like Muslims and corrupt traditional politicians as the onus for their anxieties. For the most part, it appears to be working in his favor.
Another way to understand his viability as a candidate is to look into how polling works. It's a complicated process and often elicits unexpected results that depend on the firm and the amount of money spent on the poll. (FiveThirtyEight has a helpful graphic that rates every pollster's accuracy.) Typically, a pollster takes a sample size that proportionally reflects the racial, social, and ideological composition of the population. While the average sample size of approximately 1,500 people seems low, pollsters are usually able to minimize inaccuracies in the data because of how representitive the sample is. To give you an idea, the most recent New York Times / CBS poll interviewed 1,276 people by phone and a computer program randomly selected each landline from a group of 82,000.
Where does polling go wrong? With inadequate sample sizes or sample sizes that skew towards a particular demographic. Unsurprisingly, sponsors of polls usually suggest the presence of bias — for example, Fox News has a more biased record than ABC News / Washington Post polls. In this particular general election, it's difficult to give much weight to polls because they tend to force people to answer ultimatum questions for dramatic effect, like: "If the election came down to Hilary Clinton versus Donald Trump, who would you vote for?" Given that we don't know who has even won the primary, these polls intend to gauge the undecided voter's sway by relying on unknown variables. As unreliable as general election polls are and despite how popular Trump seems to be, it's important to note they show that most Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Trump.
Alarmingly and contrary to what you might expect, some believe Trump's polling numbers have soared in reaction to his racist policy reforms. When he announced his intention to build a wall separating America from Mexico in June, his polling numbers jumped from 17 percent of Republicans supporting him as candidate to 24 percent in August. While there is no concrete correlation between this immigration plan and his proceeding surge in the polls, it should be noted that 70 percent of Republican millennials support construction of a wall. And after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Trump proposed banning the entry of Muslims to the United States and his support, again, climbed in national polls.
Taking the average popularity of a candidate from several polls is an effective way to assess Trump's ability to win the Republican nomination. According to the estimated average, Trump's favorability within the Republican party peaked in August and has plateaued since then. Ted Cruz has risen in the polls dramatically, Ben Carson peaked and dropped as well — but Trump has remained the clear leader since he announced his candidacy. Analyzing the millennial data also provides surprising insights into the possibility of Trump even winning the Republican nomination. During the last Republican debate, Trump was by far the most mentioned candidate on Yik Yak (31.9 percent of the debate commentary was about him), but he was also the most disapproved candidate.
So, what do all these statistics mean? It's impossible to predict with certainty whether Trump will or will not win the Republican nomination, and especially not the general election. However, his message clearly resonates with an ever-growing number of Americans. Another possibility is some Republicans may have already accepted him as the inevitable nominee, despite disagreeing with him on some issues, and are rallying behind him to support the party. Or, maybe support for Trump is meant as a protest against the unpopular political establishment, who clearly does not like him. The idea that most Trump supporters are disaffected citizens also explains why some expert say his backers won't actually vote.
Trump has stiff competition with Cruz and Rubio, but until their voices are louder than his, he will continue to win over a population that has more control over the outcome of this election than we once thought.