This is the pivotal question of the 2016 presidential campaign, five weeks before the first votes are cast:
Will Donald Trump’s legion of choleric, non-college-educated citizens turn out in great enough numbers to convert his astonishing dominance in the polls to the ballot box?
The 69-year-old demagogue, real estate developer, and reality TV star so far has confounded the Beltway’s battalion of conventional wisdom peddlers by commanding the Republican field with an ultra-nationalistic campaign message combining xenophobia, jingoism, and bullyboy bluster.
At a time when Hillary Clinton remains the favorite over the insurgency of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders among Democrats, Trump scares the bejesus out of establishment GOP conservatives, who fear his inflammatory immigrant-bashing, war-mongering, and authoritarian belligerence will damage their party for decades.
Three key factors have shaped Trump’s success to date, 2015’s top political story, and will determine whether he prevails in 2016:
EDUCATION: Trump’s current lead arises from America’s least-educated registered voters. Among Republicans without college degrees, he captured 46 percent in a recent CNN survey, consistent with a raft of similar research. Just 12 percent favored Texas Senator Ted Cruz, 11 percent evangelical neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and 8 percent Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
By contrast, the race among GOP voters with college degrees is close: 22 percent favor Cruz and 19 percent Rubio and Carson, while Trump lags at 18 percent. This so-called “diploma divide” illustrates the depth of working-class anger at Washington’s establishment; it’s important because non-college graduates historically are less likely to vote than those with degrees.
“Trump’s support for the Republican nomination is not defined by ideology or age or gender,” said CNN analyst William Schneider. “It’s defined by education.”
Or, more precisely, the lack of it.
STATE OF THE STATES: The Mainstream Media’s endless, breathless reporting on Trump (a Tyndall Report analysis of network coverage shows that he has received four times as much air time as any other Republican and five times as much as all Democrats combined) often features The Donald’s lead in national polls. At press time, he’s at 34 percent in surveys aggregated by the website Real Clear Politics, with Cruz at 18 percent and Rubio at 12 percent.
Well and good, except campaigns for party nominations and president are not national races but 50 state-by-state contests.
So, in Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation caucuses February 1, Cruz this week overcame Trump in the state’s poll aggregation, consolidating support from Christian “values voters.” Trump still leads in New Hampshire, whose primary is the following week; however, the Granite State’s electorate is better educated, and less influenced by evangelicals, which may benefit a less radical conservative like Rubio, governors Chris Christie and John Kasich of New Jersey and Ohio, respectively, or even the hapless Jeb Bush, who recently became the first GOP wannabe to sharply attack Trump.
A Trump loss in Iowa would pierce the mantle of inevitability he has claimed based on his preeminence in the polls — what does a candidate with sneering contempt for “losers” say if he loses? — and provide momentum to one or more rivals.
DEATH OF TRUTH: Trump preens as blunt, honest, and straight talking, but much of what he mouths is lies. PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize–winning fact-checking operation, just awarded him its “Lie of the Year” award after reporting that three-quarters of 77 controversial Trump statements its staff examined are mostly or entirely false, from slurs about Mexican immigrants to untruths about New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11.
In fairness, Trump is not the only one torturing the truth. All politicians lie to a certain extent, but the scope and consistency of mendacity in 2016 is breathtaking. “The more falsehoods a Republican candidate speaks, the more successful he or she is,” Al Jazeera America’s detailed analysis of PolitiFact data concluded. “If you are competing for the GOP nomination for president, telling the truth is the kiss of death.”
That is because the steady decline in approval for news organizations, along with the rise of partisan media outfits like Fox and MSNBC, means there no longer are authoritative neutral referees for national politics with enough credibility to discredit false claims. Trump’s lies will continue to succeed unless his foes aggressively challenge them.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Since Trump got in the race, I’ve reliably and repeatedly been wrong in predicting his imminent political decline. So here’s the double down: Take it to the bank that he fades after New Hampshire, and the race boils down to Cruz versus Rubio.