Is Trump the first strong Republican leader since Reagan?

Trump has seen a bump in his polling numbers and is gaining support among Republicans

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While Donald Trump still faces enormous challenges in his campaign for the White House, the last few weeks have been very good ones for him.

His primary ended earlier than many expected, and well before the Democrats.  He rolled out a Vice Presidential search process and appointed Chris Christie to head up the building of his government.  He had a successful trip to Washington, sending a clear signal to all the party is in the process, slowly, of coming together behind him.

The media gave saturation, perhaps even unprecedented, coverage, to his every move and utterance.  In extraordinarily rapid fashion Trump has made the transition from brash outsider to confident leader of the Republican Party, again demonstrating that despite his political inexperience and sky high negatives, this guy is capable of playing the game at the highest level.

And perhaps most importantly to the Trumpian narrative, the success of his last few weeks has already begun to show up in the polls.  According to the Huffington Post Pollster aggregate, Hillary Clinton’s lead over Trump, which was eight to ten points throughout March and April, has shrunk to between four and six points.

The four most recent polls had Clinton’s lead at four, two, four and two.  The Ipsos/Reuters weekly tracking poll released over the weekend also caught this movement, finding Clinton’s margin dropping from nine to four (45/36 to 41/37) over the past week. The new NBC/Survey Monkey track finds similar movement, going from 49/44 to 48/45.

Trump is clearly getting a bump now, and the data suggests that while some Republican leaders may be holding out, rank and file Republicans are rapidly consolidating behind their new leader.

This movement could explain why Priorities USA, the Clinton SuperPAC, will start its general election campaign in the coming days, six weeks earlier expected.

As I’ve written before, it should not surprise anyone that Trump had the potential to bring his party together despite his contentious primary.  On the big issues of the day – large tax cuts, climate denial, gutting Obamacare, interventionist foreign policy and restrictionist immigration policy – Trump is a very much in line with modern ‘conservative’ Republicans.

Even on trade Trump is aligned with his party’s voters.  It is well known that Republican voters are more protectionist than the Ryan/Chamber wing of the GOP, and even more so than Democratic voters.  And it is also my own experience that Republican voters are far more invested in the ‘strong/weak leader’ attributes of candidates than non-aligned voters and Democrats, something that is playing to Trump’s advantage.

The ‘strong leader’ dimension of this race should be watched closely in the months ahead.  It is possible that this presidential attribute is particularly important to Republicans reared on the powerful presidency of Ronald Reagan, himself a former entertainer and unusually potent political showman.

For close to thirty years Republicans have been searching for a worthy successor, and have come up short again and again.  The Bushes were both failed presidents, and leave little to celebrate about their time on the national stage.

A series of Congressional leaders – Hastert, Gingrich, Livingston, Lott – have seen their careers end in disgrace.  The children of Reagan who have begun to assert themselves in the GOP – Cruz, Rubio, Ryan, Walker – also showed they aren’t quite ready yet.  No national Republican today has a net positive approval rating.

It is not an exaggeration to say that since Reagan the Republicans have not produced one truly successful national party leader.  This unrealized thirty year quest to find another one as great as Reagan may explain Trump’s success in ways other more traditional analyses cannot.  It also points to Kasich, who was a political ally of Reagan’s, as the Vice President who can help symbolically pass the torch from Ronald to the Donald.

While this is only a snapshot in time, and we have a long campaign ahead of us, at this point it appears that Trump may be able to make a race of this thing after all.  But  as we discussed last week, failure to do so means a particularly devastating year for the Republican Party.

Sanders still in weakened position

The good news for Hillary Clinton this week is on the Democratic side.  Despite her losses in West Virginia and Indiana in recent weeks, Clinton’s national polling lead against Sanders has ballooned from low single digits a month ago to 13 today, and shows no sign of abating.  The same Reuters/Ipsos poll that showed her race against Trump tightening significantly also found her 15 point lead over Sanders unchanged from a weekly earlier.

Despite his two recent wins, Sanders has been unable to make up any public opinion ground against Clinton, suggesting that for many Democrats the primary has already ended.  While she might struggle this week in Oregon and Kentucky, her sizable national advantage is likely to prevent Sanders doing as well in the early June states including California and New Jersey to keep his candidacy going until the Convention.

And when Sanders is truly defeated, and stops campaigning, one would imagine that Clinton will get the same kind of bump Trump appears to be getting now, snapping the race back to a six to eight point advantage for Clinton, a more comfortable margin, and one more in keeping with other measures of the national landscape.

Trump’s Free Media Dominance Should Be A Worry for Clinton

I will dive into this a bit more in future columns, but want to say that Trump’s facility as a public communicator and his ability to completely dominate news coverage should start to become a true worry for team Clinton.

I have long rejected the theory that all this early exposure was somehow hurting Trump, and raised alarms last fall about how the anaemic Democratic debate schedule was ceding far too much ground to Trump and the Republicans. While Democrats may have substantial advantages in how modern campaigns are run, we are about to learn the true value of celebrity and persistent media presence, traits that can be virally magnified in the social media age in ways not possible in previous media eras.

I don’t think Trump’s facility with modern media will be enough to close the institutional gap with the blended Clinton-Obama campaign apparatus, but it is possible that the modeling of the digital nerds have not adequately war gamed a Kardashian-like social media celebrity like Trump.

Underestimating Trump has proven to be a dangerous indulgence this presidential cycle.

Simon Rosenberg is the founder of the think tank NDN/NPI. In the run up to the US election Left Foot Forward will be reposting his weekly analysis of the campaign trail as a UK exclusive. You can find previous columnshere

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