Trump defies the odds to go from sideshow to main event

Popularity rock solid despite his string of scandalous pronouncements

When all is done and dusted in November, it may well be that the man in the Oval Office started his journey to the White House atop a golden escalator.

Back on that fateful June 16 last year, when tycoon Donald Trump hopped off his escalator to call Mexicans rapists and promised to build a wall they would pay for as he announced his candidacy for the White House, he was universally regarded as a joke.

With a strong slate of former governors and senators vying for the Republican nomination, the businessman turned reality-TV star was expected to provide a few laughs and then promptly leave the real election to the adults. At that point, his standing in the presidential polls was in the toilet - hovering around 3 per cent.

The Huffington Post went so far as to declare that it would post all stories related to Mr Trump's campaign, not in its politics section with the others, but in the entertainment section.

"Trump's campaign is a sideshow. We won't take the bait," the website declared in July. "If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette."

Mr Trump speaking to supporters during a campaign rally in Warren, Michigan, on Friday. His strategy for setting the narrative has been described as "throwing a dead cat into the room" - doing something so shocking that people stop whatever they are doing to talk about it. It seems to be working as Mr Trump remains popular, much to the dismay of party veterans. PHOTO: REUTERS

Unlike candidates who make a point of talking about their humble beginnings to try and connect with blue-collar voters, Mr Trump revels in telling the audience how rich he is and how he is going to make them win so much "you'll get bored with winning".

Today, the sideshow is the main event. The 69-year-old businessman now looks more likely to become the nominee of the Republican Party - much to the chagrin of his increasingly desperate party leadership.

He has completely dominated the first month of primaries, coming a close second in Iowa before thrashing his rivals in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. He also came out the big winner on Super Tuesday last week, with seven wins out of the 11 on offer.

With every win, the once crowded field of 17 candidates is whittled down a little more and the blood pressure of the Republican leadership rises another notch.

Last Thursday, the party's 2012 nominee Mitt Romney made the unusual move of devoting a 20-minute speech to taking shots at Mr Trump.

"Donald Trump tells us that he is very, very smart. I'm afraid that when it comes to foreign policy, he is very, very not smart," he said.

The move said something about the panic that has set in. Not since Mr Romney's own father attacked the populist candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1960s has a senior party figure intervened in the nomination process in this way.

And still, Mr Trump's popularity appears rock solid.

Just exactly how he is achieving this has been the subject of much hand-wringing. Mr Trump has committed enough sins to condemn dozens of campaigns, yet none of them seems to have had any adverse impact on him.

He followed up the shocking act of calling Mexicans murderers and rapists with the bold move of criticising senior Republican Senator John McCain's war record.

"He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured," he said.

He later read out the mobile phone number of one of his rivals - Senator Lindsey Graham - while on the campaign trail, apparently to prove that Mr Graham had previously called him to ask for a favour.

"Run for President, but don't be the world's biggest jackass," Mr Graham subsequently said about the incident in an interview on CBS.

By then - he had already insulted an entire nation and made enemies of two senior Republicans - Mr Trump's campaign was barely a month old. His poll numbers though already had him at the front of the pack.

Little could anyone have guessed what more was to come from the mouth of the brash Manhattan real estate developer.

In August, he said that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever"; in September, he said that no one would vote for another rival, Ms Carly Fiorina, because of her face; that same month he did not disagree with a supporter at his rally who called President Barack Obama a Muslim; then in November, he claimed thousands in Jersey City cheered the 9/11 attacks and compared candidate Ben Carson's self-confessed "pathological temper" to child molesting.

Said Mr Trump: "Child molesting. You don't cure these people. You don't cure a child molester. There's no cure for it. Pathological, there's no cure for that."

His strategy for setting the narrative has been described as "throwing a dead cat into the room" - doing something so shocking that people stop whatever they are doing to talk about it.

In December, he flung his biggest cat after suffering a slight dip in the polls. He took to the podium and read out a statement calling for the complete ban on all Muslims coming into the US. The suggestion was rebuffed by all quarters but - as has been the case for his entire campaign - the poll numbers rose.

And the hits kept on coming. Mr Trump has since got into an argument with the Pope; failed to denounce a white supremacist; committed the Republican taboo of attacking President George W. Bush for Iraq; and advocated waterboarding.

Theories abound as to why he has been able to thrive through all the scandals. Some suggest he has tapped into a deep unhappiness among voters who are fed up with conventional politicians. Others suggest that his personal branding, cultivated through years of high-profile business deals and TV shows, allows him to have a direct relationship with voters without having to worry about how media coverage defines him.

Then there is the idea that his simple pronouncements, when confronted with complex problems, are the work of a marketing genius who knows exactly how to move people.

One good example came during a debate just before Super Tuesday when Mr Trump was asked how his economic plan would cover the US$10 trillion (S$13.7 trillion) deficit produced by proposed tax cuts.

Rather than go into any kind of detail that could be easily picked apart by pundits or forgotten by viewers, Mr Trump said: "Waste, fraud and abuse all over the place. Waste, fraud and abuse."

Simple words, repeated ad nauseam until they stick.

Mr Trump is also very clear on what he is selling. His candidacy is simply about strength. Unlike candidates who make a point of talking about their humble beginnings to try and connect with blue-collar voters, Mr Trump revels in telling the audience how rich he is and how he is going to make them win so much "you'll get bored with winning".

And as long as he continues to convey strength, almost nothing else seems to matter.

When he was interrupted at a rally in Virginia last week, Mr Trump simply shouted to the crowd: "Is it fun being at a Trump rally?"

Said Associate Professor Daniel Franklin of Georgia State University: "It seems to me people like the concept of Trump rather than the actual substance of Trump."

Speak to Mr Trump's supporters and there is evidence for nearly every theory.

Take Mr John Young, 60, a retired purchasing agent who says he agrees with Mr Trump on all the issues but thinks the billionaire could dial back the hyperbole.

"He has a way of talking that is (filled with) hyperbole. People react to what he says immediately without thinking about what he is saying," he said.

Then there are those like general contractor Steve Bell, 65 and waitress Rachel Wester, 52, who may not be able to articulate Mr Trump's positions, but support him any way.

"He's not an established politician. He's a businessman. I just think we need a new view on things," said Mr Bell.

When asked which issues were important to him, he said: "Immigration, taxes, things like that I guess."

Ms Wester's reasons were similarly centred on Mr Trump's persona.

"He's a great man and I want to make America great again. I love all his policies, his immigration policies, his foreign policies; I like all his policies, he's a great man."

There is also sometimes a siege mentality among his supporters, especially in the wake of growing opposition from within the Republican party.

College student Jason Dukakis, 19, who is voting in his first election, said he now doesn't tell his friends he is supporting the businessman unless he absolutely has to.

"I've never seen so much hatred for one person. And it's a fellow Republican."

Whatever the reason for their support, their enthusiasm is undeniable. Mr Trump regularly attracted 10,000 people to his rallies early on in the campaign, when most candidates struggled to fill a small school hall. And it is clear his claims of having brought some independents over to the Republican Party may well be true as voting numbers across the primaries have spiked.

Contrary to popular perception, Mr Trump has more appeal to moderates than his current Republican rivals. Mr Dukakis, for instance, says he is a conservative but likes the idea of government paying for healthcare. Mr Trump is the only Republican candidate who has voiced a willingness to support socialised medicine.

Still, the big question remains of whether the Republican Party's best efforts can stop the man.

A #NeverTrump movement has promised to pour tens of millions of dollars into anti-Trump advertising in Florida in the lead-up to the key primary there on March 15. Republican insiders are also going over the various scenarios that could play out at the convention in July to strip the nomination from Mr Trump.

Even if he has a lead in delegates heading to the convention, strategists believe they can use the rules to push an alternative - possibly even Mr Romney - forward, as long as Mr Trump had not reached the magic number of 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

Ms Amy Walter of Cook Political Report said at a forum that the effort may be coming too late. She stressed that the party had many opportunities to attack Mr Trump in the past eight months but played it all wrong.

Normally, campaigns would have gone after any candidate on the rise but Mr Trump was left largely unscrutinised for months.

"They didn't because it was, 'Oh, we've got to fight our lane, win our lane and then go after him. He can't win, so we are going after the establishment vote, we're going to go after the evangelical vote then we'll be one-on-one with Donald Trump'. The entire time, he made the race in his image."

If Mr Trump is to be stopped before the convention, then there needs to be a change of heart among voters and quickly, said Dr David Yepsen from Southern Illinois University.

He cites the ending of the classic movie, Bridge On The River Kwai, where actor Alec Guinness realises he has just built and protected a bridge for the Japanese enemy, and proclaims: "What have I done?"

Dr Yepsen said: "Republicans have got to have that Alec Guinness moment here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'Trump defies the odds to go from sideshow to main event'. Print Edition | Subscribe