Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. won’t destroy his candidacy – but would severely threaten the party’s chance at the White House in 2016 if he’s the nominee, GOP strategists and pundits said.
“Hate Donald Trump all you want, be offended by his proposal all you want, but it is really brilliant politics for Trump right now in the Republican primary, and the reactions from the other candidates prove it,” wrote conservative radio host Erick Erickson. Candidates “attacking Trump on his immigration proposals now attacking him on this have done themselves no favors within the primary process” by aligning themselves with Obama on both issues in voters’ eyes.
Trump’s critics have become all too familiar with the pattern: The New York billionaire says something they consider offensive; prognosticators forecast his downfall; but he stays strong or even rises in GOP polls. The pattern held when Trump trashed migrants from Mexico, attacked Sen. John McCain’s war record, and insulted Fox News host Megyn Kelly.
Polling indicates that Trump’s suspicion of Muslims will appeal to many Republican voters. A study by the Public Religion Research Institute released last month found that 76 percent of Republicans say Islam is “at odds with American values and way of life,” compared to 43 percent of Democrats. A survey by the Pew Research Center last year found that Republicans rate Muslims more negatively than any other religious group, giving them an average of 33 on a scale of 100, compared to 71 for evangelical Christians, 67 for Jews, and 66 for Catholics.
In a Bloomberg Politics national poll conducted last month, 32 percent of Republicans said Islam is “an inherently violent religion” that leads its followers to violence.
“As much as anyone may disagree with his policies (and I do), Trump is not hurting himself with GOP voters with his negativity toward Muslims,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, on Twitter.
Trump has led nearly every national Republican poll for five months, cruising past 30 percent in some surveys while rivals in the historically crowded field struggle to approach that threshold.
Trump’s proposal is roiling the party less than two months before first votes are cast, and supporters have shown that they’re drawn to him for deep-rooted personal and policy reasons, upending any hope of party leaders that his bid might have been a media-fueled summer fling. He’s demonstrated a unique talent for harnessing the anxieties of white working-class Americans about a country that is becoming more racially and religiously diverse.
In a general election, however, his strategy could be poisonous for the Republican Party. In 2012, Romney lost Hispanic Americans 71 percent to 27 percent and Asian Americans 73 percent to 26 percent. Those are the fastest-growing demographics in the U.S., and many political analysts say the GOP’s chances of winning back the White House hinge on its ability to narrow those margins.
Establishment Republican leaders hope that Trump has peaked and that the party will unite behind an alternative once the field winnows. That’s not a safe bet yet, and at the very least, it’ll require more patience.