Donald Trump’s absolutely remarkable 323-day odyssey to the Republican presidential nomination

Chris Cillizza,

Donald Trump announced for president on June 16, 2015.  And this happened.

NBC and the Wall Street Journal released a national poll days later. Here’s how the Republican primary field looked:

You’ll notice Trump didn’t make that graphic. That’s because he was getting one — yes ONE — percent of the vote in the hypothetical Republican primary race. That put him in the company of other one-percenters like Lindsey Graham, who has emerged as the single most vocal anti-Trump politician, and John Kasich, who will end his presidential campaign today and, in so doing, clear the field for Trump.

That wasn’t even the worst news in the poll for Trump! Two-thirds of Republicans said they couldn’t see themselves supporting him for president. Just 32 percent said they could imagine backing him for president. And, unlike many of his unknown Republican rivals, everyone knew Trump’s name in the poll.

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That combination of universal name recognition and broad dislike caused me to write a piece — on June 17 — headlined “Why no one should take Donald Trump seriously, in one very simple chart.” This was the chart:

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Based on everything I knew about politics to that point, I was CERTAIN that I was right about Trump. I had never, ever seen a candidate with numbers like Trump’s do anything but flame out. And, per the NBC-WSJ poll, it wasn’t as though Trump was starting at any sort of high elevation. He was barely beating an asterisk in most national polling at the time.

Then everything changed. Fast. Trump seized on immigration as his signature issue, tapping into the frustration among rank-and-file Republicans for their party leaders who seemed all-too-ready to allow some sort of path to citizenship for people in the country illegally. Trump’s willingness not just to say “no” but to say “hell no” to the idea of allowing undocumented workers to stay in the country led to a reassessment of who he was and what he could be by a deeply disaffected (and large) portion of the Republican base. Sprinkle in his celebrity, some tough talk about foreign policy and national security and just a pinch of unrepentant nationalism, and suddenly Trump wasn’t a punch line anymore.

The turnaround in his poll numbers between mid-June and early August was — and is– breathtaking.

There was this:

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And this:

Six weeks after writing why no one should take Trump’s candidacy seriously, I penned a post entitled “Boy was I wrong about Donald Trump.” In it, I wrote:

Why did I miss Trump’s appeal so badly? Simply put: I had NEVER EVER seen a reversal in how people perceive a candidate who is as well known as Trump — much less a reversal in such a short period of time. I based my conclusion that Trump would never be a relevant player in the Republican primary fight on the ideas that once people 1) know you and 2) don’t like you, you can’t change those twin realities much. …

…That was 100 percent true. Until Donald Trump proved it (and me) wrong.

Thus began the second phase of Trump’s candidacy — and my (and the media’s) relationship with it.  And that stage focused on this simple question: When will the Trump bubble burst?

First, it was a summer thing.  Then, as summer turned to fall, it was just a matter of time until Republican voters focused on the race and their choices.  Just wait, everyone said. This won’t last.

Then came the Paris terror attacks on Nov. 13 and the San Bernardino, Calif., murders on Dec. 2. Jeb Bush, among other candidates, insisted that THIS was the moment when the “serious” candidates would emerge. “He’s not a serious person and therefore it’s hard to imagine him being president of the United States,” Bush said of Trump in early December. “We’re running for the presidency of the United States. It’s a serious job that requires serious candidates that offer serious plans.”

Bush — and the rest of the Republican field — were right that Paris and San Bernardino represented a critical moment in the race. But, they were wrong about whom it would help. The answer, as always in the Republican race, was Trump.

Six days after San Bernardino, Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, a move widely derided by, well, virtually everyone in the political smart set. Know who didn’t deride it? Republican voters. Trump watched his poll numbers nationally go from the low- to mid-30s to the low-40s — and stay there as actual caucus and primary votes began.

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The simple fact is that when you look at that polling trend above, Trump’s dominance in this race was never seriously threatened. He won 27 of the 42 states (64 percent) that were contested in the Republican primary process. He has accumulated 10.6 million votes, almost 3.5 million more than Ted Cruz. He has an almost-500 delegate lead over Cruz.

Had it been any candidate other than Trump, this race would have been effectively called weeks ago. Trump led virtually wire to wire in this race. He systematically knocked out heavyweights within the GOP — from old bulls like Bush to rising stars like Marco Rubio and Scott Walker. He barely even stumbled in his march to the nomination.

And Trump did it all as a first-time candidate who, up until the last month, was surrounded by an inner circle of loyalists who had only the briefest experience in politics (if any at all).  This was, from beginning to end, a Donald Trump production. And it was a master work.

The next act for Trump will be even more difficult. Trump convincing Republicans, many of whom share a world view with him, that he was more and better than they thought is a very different thing than convincing independents and even some Democrats of that fact. Trump’s numbers among Hispanics and white women, to name just two groups, are tremendously bad.

Trump starts as an underdog in the race against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. But, anyone who has borne witness to the last 323 days in politics — and I am one — can’t simply write off his chances just yet. This is someone who has already performed the politically impossible once. Who’s to say he can’t do it again?