Following Donald Trump’s highly publicized spiritual beheading of Muslims, he once again defied conventional wisdom, not only holding fast in the national polling but also improving. In the latest Monmouth University GOP poll this week, Trump soared to 41 percent, the first time he’s broken that barrier, putting him well ahead of his next closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, at 14 percent. A Washington Post-ABC poll confirmed the Trump surge, though they have him at 38 percent.
Given how well Trump is doing, this may seem like an odd question to ask, but are the polls actually under-representing Trump's support among Republicans?
One thing is for sure: Despite widespread condemnation, Trump's proposed temporary halt to Muslim immigration seems to be working to his advantage. At Tuesday night's CNN debate in Las Vegas, Jeb Bush deserved credit for challenging Trump and refusing to scapegoat all Muslims. However, his was a lonely voice. It's significant that criticism from the other candidates was muted. Partly that's because, we know from polling, a majority of Republicans agree with Trump. But it's also true that everyone draws the line somewhere. For Trump, the line was drawn at 14 American deaths in San Bernardino. For other candidates, it may be 140, 1,400, or 14,000. If you doubt it, ask if they are willing to unequivocally take an immigration ban off the table as a wartime measure. That Trump was willing to bring it forward means something to the legion of fans that admire him for saying out loud what others are only thinking.
Because of his harsh immigration policies, openly supporting Trump for some people carries with it risk of shame and humiliation. "Fascist" and "racist" are just some of the negative terms used to describe Trump by his critics. Which leads to the first reason that Trump's support may be undercounted: People lie, and the more ill at ease they are with the questions being asked, the more likely they are to lie in response.
Evidence from polling in Europe suggests anti-immigration candidates do better on automated and online polls than they do on polls that use live interviewers. Voters won't reveal to a stranger that they support an anti-immigration politician, but they will anonymously record it into a machine. The same phenomenon has also been observed here. Over the weekend, The Des Moines Register's live interview poll showed Cruz leading Trump in Iowa, 31-21. Days later, however, the robo-calling PPP poll from Iowa showed Trump leading Cruz, 28-25.
The second reason Trump's support may be artificially low is the possibility Trump is going to bring nontraditional GOP voters into the primary electorate. I spoke to a rival campaign's pollster who believes some of the state polls are screening so tightly for past GOP primary voters that they could be missing a chunk of Trump voters who have never participated in the primary process. Of course, the question is whether these nontraditional primary voters who have been energized by Trump will follow through and actually show up to vote on a cold, snowy day in Iowa or New Hampshire. Still, a strong argument exists they're being undercounted in polling of likely voters.
In 2008, the energizing force in the Republican primary was the Iraq War. In 2012, it was the economy. In 2016, it's immigration. It's no surprise in hindsight that the candidate with the harshest immigration policies is leading the field. All along, the Washington insiders assured us Trump would self-destruct as we got closer to the first voting. Instead, the real story in 2016 may be that Trump's true support is greater than they or anyone else thought.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.