WASHINGTON - Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is having a huge impact on the Republican presidential field. The real estate mogul has vaulted into first place in the latest Suffolk University Poll with 17 percent support, followed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush with 14 percent and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at 8 percent. In other recent polls, Trump has surged into second place behind Bush.
What’s behind the surge? Trump’s ‘in-your-face’ message blasting illegal immigration is rallying conservatives to his side, including a recent event in Arizona that drew a big crowd.
“I respect Mexico greatly as a country. But the problem we have is that their leaders are much smarter, sharper and more cunning than our leaders and they are killing us at the border and they are killing us in trade. They are killing us!” Trump said to cheers.
Trump’s blunt style is winning over conservatives, said Republican analyst Scot Faulkner.
“He is such a loose cannon that he is almost refreshing and I think that is why he has bounced to the top of the pack,” he said.
But the downside for Trump and the Republicans is that his comments blasting illegal immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists” have sparked a backlash among immigrant groups across the country and could hurt the Republican Party in the long run.
“He calls us criminals. He calls us rapists. We are none of the above,” said immigration activist Jorge Mario Cabrera at a recent Trump protest in California.
Maryland Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk also blasted Trump’s stance on immigrants at a rally in front of a Trump-owned hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.
“We have economic power," she said. "We are a big part of this economy and we are not going to take it laying down!”
The furor over Trump has also spawned a cottage industry - Trump pinatas.
Democratic presidential candidates have also lashed out at Trump, from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders to former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley.
“If Donald Trump wants to run on a platform of demonizing immigrants, then he should go back to the 1840s and run for the nomination of the Know-Nothing [anti-immigrant] Party!” O’Malley told a Hispanic rights group in Kansas City.
Most of the Republican presidential contenders seem to be handling Trump cautiously for the moment. But Jeb Bush did speak out during a campaign swing through Iowa. Bush criticized what he called Trump’s “rhetoric of divisiveness” and said he did not want to be “associated with the kind of vitriol that he’s spewing out these days.”
Establishment Republicans seem wary of Trump as they watch his surge in the polls. They worry that all that blunt talk about illegal immigration could come back to haunt the party in November of next year when Republicans hope to find a way to blunt the Democratic advantage with the growing population of Latino voters.
“He is going to have this window from now possibly through New Hampshire [i.e. primaries] where he is on center-stage and he is a person who craves center-stage and he is going to be able to hold it because he has things to say that will shake everybody up, for better or worse,” said Scot Faulkner.
Will the surge last?
Can Trump sustain his momentum and actually win the Republican nomination? Most of the experts are doubtful, including John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
“He is certainly a well-known candidate who has said some controversial things. In a big field he’s gotten some traction, especially on some immigration issues. At the end of the day I don’t think he will be the nominee or be close to being the nominee,” he said.
But Fortier added that Trump will remain a factor in the race for the foreseeable future.
“His prominence is to be there in the debates and to make some of the issues more on the radar screen and to point some of the candidates in a direction that sometimes they are not so comfortable with. So I think he’ll be a factor but at the end of the day it is hard to imagine him winning the nomination,” Fortier said.
As the election draws closer, many Republicans will probably focus on which candidate has the best chance to win.
“Certainly among Republicans there is a great mood for change. They would like to see a Republican president. They have been out of the presidential office for quite a while and so they are going to be very competitive and aggressive,” said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
Trump’s rise in the polls will be put to the test when the top 10 Republican contenders meet in the first presidential debate of the 2016 campaign cycle on August 6 in Cleveland.