This look at real estate mogul Donald Trump’s chances and path to win the Republican presidential nomination is part of a series here on The Fix looking at all the top candidates. To see the others, click here.
Where does he stand in the polls?
At the top. Trump leads by single digits in Iowa and double digits in New Hampshire and South Carolina, according to Real Clear Politics poll of polls in those three states.
Trump has led by wide margins in New Hampshire for the last six months, but his lead in the Iowa caucuses is relatively new. As recently as a month ago, Trump trailed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Hawkeye State. But, his attacks on Cruz’s citizenship — the Texan was born in Canada — seem to have worked.
Nationally, Trump has led the field for months. Lately, that edge appears to be widening as Cruz fades slightly.
How has he performed?
No one — not even Trump — thought he would get to this point. He is now on the cusp of not only winning Iowa but potentially sweeping the first three early-state votes, something no non-incumbent Republican president has been able to pull off.
How has Trump done it? In the most unorthodox way possible — largely eschewing the grip-and-grin, non-stop stumping in these early states in favor of massive rallies in which Trump flies in on his jet, speaks and then flies back home.
What Trump has done masterfully is employ his celebrity and the massive social media following to control the conversation in the race virtually every day since he entered it in mid-June. He has also displayed a remarkable knack for finding the biggest weaknesses of his rivals and relentlessly repeating them until it catches on — Ted Cruz as unlikable, Jeb Bush as low-energy, and so on.
What are his strengths?
Trump is a risk-taker. In a field chock-full of traditional pols, he stands way out — as a guy willing to say and do things that no one else would even consider doing.
The latest example: Trump’s decision to skip the Fox News debate on the Thursday night, before Monday night’s Iowa caucuses. Such a move would be unimaginable to any of his opponents; they would fear that they were sacrificing their last, best chance to reach Iowa voters. Trump took a stand — allegedly against a snarky statement Fox released when Trump let it be known he was thinking of skipping the debate — and decided instead to hold a rally of his own within driving distance of the debate.
Somehow it worked for Trump, reinforcing for his supporters just how different he is from the other candidates and that he walks the walk when it comes to his tough talk.
What are his weaknesses?
Trump’s policy knowledge — particularly on foreign affairs — is barely an inch deep. When pressed to explain how he would handle, say Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Trump’s answer is always the same: Be tough, make a better deal, win.
While that has a certain appeal — especially to people who would like to believe the world can be a far simpler place — Trump’s lack of knowledge and seeming lack of interest in learning could have major implications if the race narrows in the coming months to just him and one other candidate.
In a one-on-one debate with Marco Rubio, for instance, Trump could be badly exposed as someone who lacks the requisite knowledge and intellectual curiosity to represent the Republican Party against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
What would it take for him to win the nomination?
In truth, not all that much.
Win Iowa on Monday and Trump will almost certainly cruise to victory in the New Hampshire primaries eight days later. If that comes to pass, he would start as a clear favorite to win South Carolina’s primary on Feb. 20.
If Trump loses to Cruz in Iowa — a prospect that remains possible — then it remains to be seen whether his New Hampshire lead would hold. If it did, Trump would likely find himself in a two-man race with Cruz in South Carolina, Nevada and beyond.
If Trump were to lose both Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s likely his candidacy would be effectively over.