What’s Driving Donald Trump’s Rise in the Polls?

Donald Trump has taken the lead in the race for the Republican nomination, both in national polls and in the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But what is driving his rocketing rise among such a crowded field? Is it his penchant for showmanship, the novelty of having him in the race, or truly that he’s “willing to fight” that has put him on top?

Based on an analysis of available data from multiple sources, there seem to be three reasons Trump is doing so well in the polls at this moment:

  1. Name ID
  2. Tone
  3. Timing

Trump’s Name ID

A recent analysis of Gallup Daily Tracking polling found that Trump has far and away the highest name ID of any GOP candidate. Although his NBC reality TV show, “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice,” did not have great ratings, they were on the air for 14 seasons and watched by millions of households.


In addition to his already near-universal name ID, Trump is the beneficiary of an outsized amount of press coverage. Consider the following graph from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog:


Think about these numbers for a moment: according to Google News, Donald Trump is getting more than 3.5 times the press as his next closest competitor. To top that, the public is demanding even more information, performing searches on Google about Trump at a rate almost 7 times that of Jeb Bush.

Trump’s Tone

There has been a lot of commentary in conservative circles about how Trump’s “fight” endears him to a segment of the conservative base. Well-regarded conservative Erick Erickson recently weighed in:

“The number one thing you hear when you ask any Republican about Donald Trump is this — he fights. You hear it from Rush Limbaugh. You hear it from other talk radio show hosts. You hear it from the base. You hear it even from some Democrats. And in all cases, you hear it somewhat admirably. They may not like or endorse Trump, but they respect that he just doesn’t give a crap and fights.”

The data bears this out. Several recent polls give us some insight into the core of Trump’s strength. From a recent polling memo released by Democratic pollster PPP:

…Trump is doing well across the GOP electorate. He leads among voters who describe themselves as ‘very conservative’ with 20% to 17% for Walker and 16% for Carson. But he also has the advantage with moderates, getting 22% to 19% for Bush and 13% for Rubio. Additionally Trump has the lead both among primary voters who say their biggest concern is having the candidate who’s the most conservative on the issues (he gets 20% to 16% for Walker, 12% for Huckabee, and 11% for Carson) and with primary voters who say their biggest concern is winning in the general election (19% to 16% for Walker, 14% for Bush, 13% for Rubio, and 10% for Carson.)

While support from moderates can be explained by Trump’s ‘Apprentice’-drive name ID, his candidacy specifically speaks to a specific slice of GOP primary voters. Keep in mind that “winning” the primary at this point means appealing to a very small segment of the overall electorate. And the more candidates who are in the race, the fewer votes the winner needs.

A separate poll from Monmouth University of Iowa caucus goers comes to similar conclusions about Trump’s base of support:

Donald Trump holds a positive 47% favorable to 35% unfavorable rating, which is better than the 40% favorable to 41% unfavorable rating he received from national Republicans last week. He has higher favorable ratings among very conservative caucusgoers (55%) than he does among somewhat conservative (41%) and moderate to liberal (37%) Iowa Republicans. He also has higher favorability ratings among Tea Party supporters (56%) compared to non-supporters (39%) and among men (51%) compared to women (41%).

As does a Monmouth poll of national Republicans:

Trump’s voter rating has gone from a decidedly negative 20% favorable and 55% unfavorable in June to just a narrowly negative 40% favorable and 41% unfavorable rating now. He has also made an incredible surge among the Tea Party supporters (emphasis added) – flipping his decidedly net negative 20% to 55% rating with this group to a decidedly positive 56% favorable to 26% unfavorable rating now.

“It looks like Tea Party voters are really responding to Trump’s aggressive illegal immigrant message,” said [Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, NJ].

Do general election voters swoon for him as well? Not so much. Also from PPP:

By far the worst performing Republican against [Hillary] Clinton is Donald Trump, who trails 50/37. The general electorate takes even greater issue with his comments about John McCain than the GOP one, with just 16% of the overall population agreeing with his comments while 60% say they disagree.

But how has Trump’s fighting message impacted other candidates?

Consider the following graphic from Nate Silver’s blog, FiveThirtyEight.com, from January 12, 2015:


Now look at an updated version from July 14, 2015:


Trump’s push into Tea Party territory has pushed out other candidates who were vying for that segment, namely Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.

Whether it’s anti-establishment sentiment, or his focus on illegal immigration, Trump is leveraging his brash brand to appeal to a very specific segment of the Republican primary electorate. And in a crowded primary, it’s working.

Trump’s Timing

Despite the increasing attention the presidential race is attracting among politicos, it is still 470 days until the election and most of America is not really watching.

To illustrate this point, on Sunday, July 19, the day after Trump insulted John McCain, the top three searches on Google were about the British Open, surfer Mick Fanning, and WWE Monday Night Raw.

This presents Trump’s lead as a novelty more than anything. He is taking advantage of the laid back approach to the campaign that the media and voters are taking at this point. Reporters especially are hungry for stories over the dog days of summer, and Trump is a fantastic story to cover.

To appreciate how much off-year summer polls differ from election results, consider the RealClearPolitics average for the GOP nomination as of July 2011:

GOP Nomination RealClearPolitics Average for July 2011

Romney 21.6
Bachmann 13.2
Perry 12.6
Paul 8.2
Cain 6.6
Gingrich 4.8
Huntsman 1.9
Santorum 1.9


Granted, Romney already had a lead, but here’s what the final average looked like in April 2012:

GOP Nomination RealClearPolitics Average for April 2012

Romney 48.4
Santorum 21.3
Gingrich 15.6
Paul 13.7


While the horse race during the lazy days of summer make for interesting conversation within political circles, it likely bears little resemblance to the final outcome.

In fact, while Trump is enjoying his moment in the sun, he already has long-term issues that threaten his front-runner status. According to Gallup, Trump’s name ID outstrips his favorability, a dangerous position for any candidate, especially with eight debates and millions in ads yet to come.

Based on an analysis of Gallup’s numbers, Trump’s ratio of favorable to unfavorable, puts him squarely near the bottom of the pack for the GOP nomination at #14.

Ratio of Favorability to Unfavorability for 2016 GOP Presidential Candidates

Candidate Ratio
Ben Carson 9.000
Marco Rubio 4.818
Scott Walker 4.778
Carly Fiorina 3.875
Bobby Jindal 3.636
Rick Perry 3.188
Ted Cruz 3.125
Mike Huckabee 3.056
John Kasich 2.500
Rand Paul 2.238
Jeb Bush 2.000
Rick Santorum 2.000
Donald Trump 1.556
Lindsey Graham 1.200
Chris Christie 1.182
George Pataki 0.750


An NBC News/Marist poll of Iowa voters released on July 26 shows tight fav/unfav numbers for Trump. Note the difference in likely GOP caucus goers and all registered voters:

Overall, do you have a favorable or an unfavorable impression of Donald Trump?


  • Favorable: 45%
  • Unfavorable: 44%
  • Unsure: 11%


  • Favorable: 32%
  • Unfavorable: 60%
  • Unsure: 8%

The NBC News/Marist poll shows the reason many Republicans are so concerned about Trump’s candidacy: his favorability among the general public is nearly 2-1 upside down.

It gets worse for Trump. Another NBC News/Marist poll of New Hampshire voters has Trump upside down by 14-points, even as he leads the ballot test among all Republican candidates:

Overall, do you have a favorable or an unfavorable impression of Donald Trump?


  • Favorable: 39%
  • Unfavorable: 53%
  • Unsure: 8%


  • Favorable: 27%
  • Unfavorable: 67%
  • Unsure: 7%


Donald Trump is leveraging his high name ID and brand as a brash businessman to attract votes from anti-establishment, very conservative Republicans — the same voters who consistently vote in primaries. However, Trump’s foundation is weak, and as the fire from other candidates and the media turn on him, he has little good will to protect him from the frequently shifting winds of public opinion. Besides, there are several other candidates competing for these same voters, and as happened in 2012, it’s likely his current base of support will shift to other candidates as they flash their conservative bona fides.

Other Conclusions

Nate Silver offers his own explanation for the Trump bounce:

“My guess is that his support reflected a combination of (i) low-information voters who recognized his name and (ii) voters who share Trump’s disdain for the trappings of the political establishment and (iii) voters who were treating him as an inside joke or a protest vote…”

Patrick Ruffini weighed in with a terrific explanation of the polling methods used by media organizations versus those used by political campaigns:

“But for those who are on the cusp of making the debate, the polls are make or break, and could determine who has a chance to advance or not… the criteria for choosing the 10 candidates should be rooted in reality. Sound polling, analytics, and data should be used to gauge opinions amongst the people who are actually likely to vote, not casual passers-by.

“Right now, we can’t be certain this is the case.”

The Wall Street Journal has also chimed in: