The Democratic National Convention had barely drawn to a close when Donald Trump seized the spotlight back on Friday, embroiling himself in a protracted fight with the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed in combat. The hot lights have stayed trained on him through the weekend and early part of this week as the Republican nominee continues to receive uncharacteristically fierce criticism for downplaying the loss of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of slain Army Capt. Humayun Khan.
John McCain, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan each released separate statements thanking the Khan family for their service and distancing themselves from Trump’s comments about Muslims. Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, released a statement saying the Khans “should be cherished by every American.” Even the traditionally non-partisan VFW issued a strong rebuke, declaring, “There are certain sacrosanct subjects that no amount of wordsmithing can repair once crossed. Giving one’s life to nation is the greatest sacrifice, followed closely by all Gold Star families, who have a right to make their voices heard.”
The admonishments kept coming: On Tuesday, for the first time, a sitting Republican Congress member, Rep. Richard Hanna of New York, publicly declared he would vote for Hillary Clinton. At a press conference later that same day, President Obama called Donald Trump “unfit to serve as president,” and urged members of the GOP to rescind their support. The walls may look like they are closing in around Trump, but Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, says it’s unlikely this latest controversy — yes, even this one — will have any significant impact on Trump’s poll numbers. Rolling Stone spoke with Jensen to find out why.
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You just released the first poll taken after the Democratic National Convention; was there anything in there that indicated Khizr Khan’s speech was going to be an issue for Trump?
We didn’t ask anything specifically about that, but one thing that I did think was interesting from those poll numbers was Trump had the same favorability rating in that poll that he did a month ago. In other words: There was no improvement following the convention. What that sort of suggests to me is that he may have squandered the goodwill that he created with his own convention, that he got a little bit of a bounce from, by the way he’s acted on Khan story and in general the week of the Democratic convention. Usually, a week after your party convention, you would expect to have higher favorability numbers than you had before it. For Trump to be in the exact same place definitely suggests that anybody who turned over toward liking him after the Republican convention, maybe over the way he’s handled this has sort of been like, “Oh no, you’re the same guy we thought you were this whole time.”
How soon are will polls be able to detect any lasting impact this might have on Trump’s numbers?
I think we’ll have a pretty good sense of how much this whole issue is playing out in polls that come out early next week, A: Because voters will have had more of a chance to be exposed to this whole thing and, B: Because pollsters will probably start asking some specific questions about it. When we were writing our post-DNC poll on Friday morning this didn’t necessarily seem like something we needed to ask about. Now of course that it’s become such a big thing, it is probably is something that we will ask specifically about this weekend.
But I’ll be honest: I don’t expect it to have a huge impact on the numbers in the presidential race because what we’ve found, when Trump goes off on one of these outrageous tangents, is that his voters tend to just rally around him about it. Some of the examples of that that are when he said that stuff about Muslims in New Jersey actively celebrating 9/11. That was something that was clearly, factually untrue and sort of a wild accusation, but when we asked about that in the weeks after he said that, we found that all of his supporters said they thought that that happened, too. We saw the same sort of thing with his Muslim ban.
“I really see it as almost a cult-like effect: The leader says something and all of the people go along even if it’s not something they would have gone along with unless Trump had gone out and said that.”
Basically, anytime Trump has said anything derogatory about Muslims, his supporters just come right in line with whatever it is that he said. I really see it as almost a cult-like effect: The leader says something and all of the people go along even if it’s not something they would have gone along with unless Trump had gone out and said that. So my guess is that this is not actually something that is going to make a big difference in the tenor of the race. Which is not to say that it’s not important, because I think it makes it even harder for Trump to win over people who aren’t in his column already. But I don’t think it will actually cause very many of his people to abandon ship just because every time he says something like this his supporters say: We think that, too.
You mention that his supporters have not been bothered by the inflammatory things Trump has said in the past about Muslims. What about the fact that Capt. Khan was a war hero — will that make a difference? Did it impact his poll numbers when he criticized John McCain, for instance, and said he wasn’t a war hero because he was captured?
It didn’t. His poll numbers actually went up after that. After he said that whole thing about John McCain — it was so early in the Trump phenomenon that I think we all expected that that was going to be the end of Trump and, instead, his poll numbers just got stronger. And what we also saw happen was that John McCain’s poll numbers with Republicans went down so, not only did it not cost Trump any support with Republicans, it also caused his supporters to say, “Well, if Trump hates John McCain, we do too.”
What about when members of his own party distance themselves from his comments — does that impact his support at all? I’m thinking for example of when he assailed Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over the Trump University case. Trump said he couldn’t be objective because of his race and he was pilloried inside his party for those comments.
So far we haven’t seen any impact of leading Republicans saying they disagree with Trump having any impact on his overall numbers with Republicans. I think what we’re really seeing in this election is — and it’s the reason Trump was nominated in the first place — there is just a huge disconnect between how Republican leaders and establishment Republicans view the world and how Trump’s supporters view the world.
So when somebody like Paul Ryan says something like that, the impact that it has on Trump supporters isn’t giving them doubts about Trump. It’s giving them doubts about Paul Ryan. It’s giving them doubts about Mitch McConnell, that sort of thing. Because they feel like those Republican leaders have sort of led the party into a bad place over the years; they’re not respected leaders outside of Washington. If you’re a Republican in Alabama, or whatever, you hate those Republican leaders in Washington, so you do just sort of side with Trump on everything like that. One thing that is sort of interesting about Paul Ryan is that, when he first became Speaker last Fall, his numbers with Republicans were a lot better than they are now. A big part of why Ryan’s numbers have gotten worse with Republicans is because Trump voters think he’s not enthusiastic enough about Trump. So, really — I’m not the first person who has said this, by any means — but you really sort of have the Republican Party and the Trump Party and even though Trump is using the Republican Party as his vehicle, they’re really kind of two separate things at this point.
What has impacted his poll numbers in the past? Anything?
There really has not been any specific event that has ever caused him to really go down. His national support in the primaries was pretty consistent, and we’ve found that his national support in the general election has been pretty consistent. That’s really the way I would characterize it: Nothing has caused him to go down, but also, all of the stuff he’s done has prevented him from being able to go up. Because there are a lot of voters who don’t like Hillary Clinton who might be open to voting for Donald Trump, but every single time he goes on one of these things like against the Khans, or the [Mexican-American] judge, it just makes it harder and harder for him to win over those people who might be skeptical of him.
Even now, when he is sort of at a decent point in his polls, he still hasn’t been able, in very many polls, to get beyond 40, 41 percent. And what these incidents do do, even though they don’t cause his support to go down, is they sort of put a ceiling on his support and make it harder and harder for him to win over the people he would need to be able to get from that 40, 41 percent he has right now to that 49 or 50 percent he would need to win.
So I think it sort of a complicated question. It’s not like some politicians who do something and you clearly see their numbers go down. But it’s still hurting him because it prevent him from seeing his numbers go up.