It’s been a morning of mixed messages for Republican Presidential contender Donald Trump, who learned that retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has taken the lead from him in a major national poll, while at the same time a second respected poll found that on the key issues of the economy and national defense, and dealing with foreign leaders, GOP primary voters trust Trump over his competitors.
While Trump still leads most national polls, one of the biggest questions right now is what he will do in the event that he cannot maintain his lead. The billionaire former reality television star has never had to run from anywhere other than the front of the pack, and whether he has the discipline or the temperament to continue in a truly competitive race remains to be seen.
The two polls come at a delicate time in the GOP primary. With only three months remaining until the first votes are cast, the Republican Party is in turmoil over the scheduled primary debate schedule. The candidates are in the midst of finalizing a set of demands that they will issue to the various television networks hosting the remaining debates, and appear to have cut the Republican National Committee out of the negotiations altogether.
The RNC, for its part, has been trying hard to fight back against the growing impression that it has lost control of the nominating process, just a few years after a bruising internal review found that the chaotic 2012 primary had ultimately hurt the campaign of the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.
In two conference calls on Monday, RNC chair Reince Priebus wrote to members that the rebellion by the candidates is not a sign that the inmates are taking over the asylum, according to The National Review. But Priebus’s insouciance was difficult to square with the announcement Sunday night, that he had decided to restructure the RNC’s oversight of the debates, taking the responsibility away from chief strategist and spokesman Sean Spicer and handing it over to chief operating officer Sean Cairncross.
The polling data released Tuesday reflects a primary electorate that is in almost as much disarray as the party establishment.
According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday, if the Republican primary were held today, Carson would get 29 percent of the vote compared to Trump’s 23 percent. The poll was conducted between October 25 and 29, and marks a major shift in opinion from less than two weeks earlier, when the same poll found GOP primary voters preferred Trump by a margin of 25-22. It is also the first time since he entered the race that the poll has not shown Trump leading the field.
However, the most recent Reuters/Ipsos survey, also out on Tuesday morning, raises doubts about the strength of voters’ support for Carson on a number of key issues.
On the economy in particular, which voters overwhelmingly identify as their top concern, 59 percent of GOP primary voters surveyed said that they would trust Trump to do the right thing to restore economic growth. That compares to only 36 percent who said they would trust Carson to manage the economy.
Trump also topped the field with 41 percent when voters were asked whom they would trust to deal with foreign leaders. Carson, however, was a close second at 39 percent. Asked whom they would trust to serve as commander-in-chief of the nation’s military, Trump and Carson came out tied with 40 percent each.
Trump, whose campaign has consisted in large part of public crowing about his poll numbers, appears to be taking steps to reassert his status as unquestioned frontrunner.
Trump’s representatives attended meetings to discuss the demands, announced Monday afternoon that he would not join the other candidates, but would negotiate directly with the networks himself.
In remarks in New York City Tuesday, where he was signing copies of his new book, Crippled America, Trump explained why. The network-hosted GOP debates have broken all sorts of records for viewership and advertising sales and, according to Trump, it’s his presence in the contest that has driven the ratings. The subtext there is that Trump has no interest in allowing his competitors to latch on to his coattails when it comes to gaining more favorable treatment from the networks.
He has also stepped up his criticism of his chief rivals, characterizing Carson as too sleepy and low-key to run the country, and attacking Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been surging of late, for everything from allegedly excessive sweating to running up credit card debt.
Trump has a demonstrated talent for identifying soft spots in his opponents’ armor and harping on them relentlessly. It’s worked for him so far, but whether that will continue as voters begin to look more seriously at the field is unclear.