WASHINGTON — As the sun rose on Super Tuesday, the D.C. in-crowd still didn't fully grasp the power of Donald Trump's message. Elites bemoan The Donald at cocktail parties and take comfort in calling Trump supporters uneducated. But while the Republican Party plunges into civil war, Trump keeps expanding his base. (He won seven of the 11 states with primaries on Tuesday.)
Many readers would probably be stunned by some of the people who are secretly supporting Trump but don't want to admit it on the record. His coalition includes not just rock-ribbed conservatives and God-fearing evangelicals, but also Ivy League-educated professionals. Some realize he's not actually that authentically conservative and look the other way. Some, who fancy themselves moderates, admire the businessman's malleability. On Monday, as an example of someone in that vein, former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert (who lost to Ted Cruz in the 2012 U.S. Senate primary in Texas) endorsed Trump. Others just like to jump on bandwagons and back winners.
The more that the Republican elites express alarm, the more a swath of these folks think that Trump might be just the change agent that's needed to nuke Washington. Remember, most grassroots activists think these D.C. politicians and talking heads are part of the problem. When I was in Alabama last week, a local official came up to me, asked me to turn off my tape recorder and whispered that he was supporting Trump. Over the past few days, I've spoken with Republicans in the same boat from Minnesota and Massachusetts to Texas and Tennessee.
"It's like Doctor Strangelove," said a tip-top Republican who is closely aligned with the GOP establishment and supported Chris Christie until he dropped out. "People are saying, "I'm not gonna tell my friends and family I'm voting for Trump," but then they're pulling the trigger for Trump. I might as well be like Slim Pickens at the end of the movie and just ride the atomic bomb down and see what happens."
Chip Saltsman, who was a senior adviser to Mike Huckabee's campaign, pointed to Cruz's strength in rural parts of Tennessee and Marco Rubio's in the suburbs. "Trump, however, cuts all through the state," said Saltsman, a former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party who is neutral. "There is no natural base for Trump, and there's nowhere he won't do great. It truly is amazing."
Trump is NOT a regional candidate.
From Massachusetts, for instance, Washington Post reporter Ben Terris argues that Trump does well because he has perfectly channeled the voice and spirit of a loudmouthed sports fan. "People follow politics here like they follow the Patriots or the Red Sox. They want to know a politician is a fighter and has their back," state Rep. Geoff Diehl said.
"Nobody has been able to lay a fing-ah on Trump!" a Massachusetts man declared to a local radio station.
As Terris puts it, "These voters don't care that the Boston Globe recently ran an editorial entitled "Massachusetts Must Stop Trump"; they're not even troubled by their own doubts that Trump can fulfill his promises. All that matters is that, for the first time in memory, a candidate is speaking their language."
In a general election, Trump could disrupt the electoral map in surprising ways. While the coverage has focused on House Republicans in moderate districts who could get wiped out, Trump could fare better than a conventional Republican in places such as western Pennsylvania or the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. This perhaps explains why a Republican House members such as Rep. Tom Marino (Pennsylvania) backed Trump on Monday night. Marino told Politico that Trump has "overwhelming support" in his district because "he's the man for the unprotected ... not the protected, not for the Wall Street people, not for the DC insiders, but for the hard-working taxpayers."
The new CNN poll that showed Trump with the support of 49% of Republicans nationally also showed that his supporters are more motivated than his detractors: 8 in 10 Republicans backing Trump said they are more excited about voting this year than in previous elections.
After months of thinking that stopping Trump was someone else's problem, everyone in the Republican establishment is finally in full freak-out mode. "A Vote for Donald Trump Is a Vote for Bigotry," Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney's chief strategist in 2012, writes on the Daily Beast.
To be sure, many who harbor pro-Trump sentiments have not fully thought through the implications of making him the Republican standard-bearer or, more significant, the president. As they see the new barrage of negative ads and watch Trump trip over questions about the Ku Klux Klan, they may very well sober up and change their minds. But they've had nine months, and it hasn't happened yet.
It's also undeniable that Trump terrifies up to half of self-identified Republicans. They worry that he's making a mockery of conservatism. They point to fascist or racist undertones in his campaign. They are in denial that he is likely to be their nominee.
March 15 is still really the day to watch. If Trump wins Florida and Ohio, it's game over. It won't be tenable for the GOP establishment to ignore the will of the grassroots at the party convention in Cleveland.