Businessman Donald Trump has defied the expectations of political operatives and pundits alike, turning his summer surge in the GOP presidential polls into full-fledged domination, even expanding his share of the vote in new surveys this week.
Now the billionaire, who has not had to dip deeply into his own pocket, says he’s ready to spend tens of millions of dollars to defend himself on the airwaves against an anticipated onslaught from fellow Republicans increasingly worried he may emerge as their party’s nominee next year.
Widely mocked as a political sideshow in June, Mr. Trump has now topped every major national and state poll of Republican presidential contenders since July, hitting his highest total yet in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey this week.
“I have been a winner. I have always won. I win even if the world goes bad. I win,” Mr. Trump told The Washington Times in a telephone interview Tuesday, explaining how he’s defied the pundits with his staying power.
Top GOP figures no longer dismiss his bid as a fluke.
“Obviously it has evolved from someone who we didn’t think was real serious to someone who clearly is,” Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, said Tuesday.
Most striking is how Mr. Trump has handled gaffes and attacks that many operatives had figured would dent him. A July dust-up with Mr. McCain over the senator’s time in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp did not hurt Mr. Trump, nor did an interview he gave to Rolling Stone where he commented on fellow candidate Carly Fiorina’s looks and electability.
Even after Mrs. Fiorina dinged him in the second GOP debate for the remarks, Mr. Trump didn’t slide. Instead, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed he and Mrs. Fiorina headed in opposite directions, with Mr. Trump rising 4 percentage points, to 25 percent, while she slid 4 points to 7 percent.
“I must have won the debates,” Mr. Trump said.
As a result, some Republicans have wondered whether they should ramp up efforts to chop Mr. Trump down.
He said he is aware of the possibility, but warned that an orchestrated GOP effort to derail his candidacy would backfire with voters who won’t listen to the “lies” that are spewed by the special interests and lobbyists that are rallying to his rivals.
“I don’t think the public will stand for it,” he said. “We are democracy, and I don’t think something like that will pass muster.”
Mr. Trump also said that he had anticipated spending upwards of $25 million up until this point in the race on campaigns ads but has not spent a penny. He said he will spend at least that much to counter negative attacks on him — but said he’s learned that his own attacks are better than ads.
“If someone does a negative ad, I am going to attack them very strong,” he said. “I find that an attack when I do it personally is better than a negative ad.”
Mr. Trump’s dominance in the 2016 GOP polling breaks with the trend in recent presidential elections, where voters tested various candidates, sending them rising and falling in the polls as conservatives and establishment-minded Republicans battled for primacy.
Patrick Murray, founding director of Monmouth University Polling, said that Mr. Trump has blown up that dynamic by leading a group of outsider candidates — which includes Ben Carson and Mrs. Fiorina — that have dominated the conversation, making it hard for the traditional establishment-versus-conservative battle to shake out as it did in previous cycles.
“This time you are not seeing any of that,” Mr. Murray said. “The voters are not even paying enough attention to them to even make a decision yet. They are saying, ‘You are not as entertaining as what is going on on the other side.’”
He said he wouldn’t bet against the polls looking the same at the end of January, on the eve of the kickoff Iowa caucuses, saying it would likely take “a self-destruction moment” from Mr. Trump to change the dynamic at this point, and “from what we’ve seen in the past, that would have to be something spectacular.”
Tom Jensen, a pollster at Public Policy Polling, said Mr. Trump has managed to draw support from “literally every key demographic within the GOP regardless of your ideology, religiosity, gender, age, etc.”
“Those different groups are usually split between a variety of candidates. And that kind of across-the-board support is what helps you to stay around longer,” he said.
Some Republicans say Mr. Trump as the nominee would be a recipe for loss in the general election.
“I’ll support him, but he’ll get killed,” Lindsey Graham said Tuesday on Fox Business News, while knocking his foreign policy views. “But I just want to tell Republicans I’m going to support our nominee, but if you send Donald Trump into the ring against Hillary Clinton, she’ll mop him up.”
Mr. Trump told The Times that Mr. Graham, who is polling at the back of the pack, is mad because Mr. Trump attacked him.
“He doesn’t believe that,” Mr. Trump said. “I will beat Hillary very easily. Don’t forget I have not focused on Hillary until this point.”