He's been called a fool, a sideshow, and a mental case—by fellow Republicans. He's flirted with a presidential run many, many times before, only to sign on for another season of his primetime TV show instead.
This time, though, Donald Trump, the billionaire, real estate mogul, and television star, says he's serious about a White House bid. He even has a "major announcement" scheduled for June 16, which he plans to follow up with travel to New Hampshire. And with the latest numbers showing him taking 5 percent of Republican and Republican leaning voters, he's polling better than a good portion of the GOP primary field, including governors Bobby Jindal and John Kasich, and respected Sen. Lindsey Graham. That could be enough to place Trump on the 10-person capped stage when the Republican debates start this year.
Despite the insults and open hostility from members of his party, plus seemingly insurmountable unfavorability ratings from the American public (71 percent, per a Washington Post/ABC News poll this week), Trump has found support from Republican voters looking for a successful businessman to jumpstart an economic renaissance—and someone who won't be bullied by anyone.
"We need to get this economy growing again, and obviously he's had a tremendous track record of creating not only things but jobs," said Robert Kiger, who runs the pro-Trump super PAC Citizens for Restoring USA. "We need a business leader and someone who is a really, really tough negotiator to deal with these countries that have leaders that are out of control."
A Trump 2016 bid would no doubt make his business bona fides a cornerstone of his campaign. While that strategy didn't pan out for Mitt Romney, it may be an easier sell for Trump, who apparently is much more successful, as far as his personal wealth goes: According to The Des Moines Register in Iowa, his claim that he has "a Gucci store that's worth more than Romney" is actually true.
"He's built a business where he's had to manage people, he's had to control a budget, he's had to deal with ups and downs of doing business," said Peter Radloff, a financial services executive from Los Angeles and ardent Trump supporter. "He knows what it takes to create something and build it to a level of success."
But while the economy is the top concern for Republican voters, foreign policy and the threat of terrorism come in a close second, according to a Pew poll from last year. Supporters say they don't view Trump's lack of diplomatic experience as a disadvantage, pointing to President Obama's relative inexperience on world affairs before he got to the White House, as well as governors in the GOP primary field.
In foreign policy and otherwise, it'll help that he's an authentic, "no-nonsense guy" who speaks his mind, Kiger said. And that farcical, decidedly unpresidential character he plays on "The Apprentice"? It's just that, Radloff says: an exaggerated caricature shrewdly designed to boost ratings.
"That's a role that obviously has turned into a financial juggernaut for him and his corporation. And that's fine; he's astute at developing that," he said. "I think there's more to him than that."
But just the same has been said about his role as perennial presidential contender. In 2011, The New York Times pointed out that whenever Trump "hinted" at a White House run, ratings rose on "Celebrity Apprentice."
The sundry Republican primary cast often draw comparisons between "Washington insiders" and the interests of the real people they'd represent, touting the broad but effective message that "Washington is broken." To supporters, Trump is one of the few candidates who not only hasn't worked in Washington, but also hasn't been stained by political life. His decades running successful businesses, they say, have prepared him much better for the role of the country's chief executive.
Corey Lewandowski, Trump's senior political adviser who most recently ran voter registration at the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity, puts it this way: "People want a business person. They're tired of politics as usual.
"They want someone who can actually get the economy moving again," he said. "They want someone who's actually created jobs, and does projects on time and on budget, and is not all talk and no action."
But in his recent flirtations with the White House, it's Trump that's been all talk. In the 2000, 2004 and 2008 cycles, he expressed interest in running as a third-party candidate a la Ross Perot. At the apex of his public skepticism about Obama's citizenship status, in 2012, he launched a more extensive media storm, setting a date for a presidential announcement before signing on for another season of "The Apprentice" instead.
Kiger says that while he worries Trump could renege on his promise that this time's for real, he has faith that his would-be candidate is more serious about 2016.
"I can't imagine anybody of his stature going through all the trouble of organizing teams and organizations in New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina and hiring staff to just say, 'Here are the next stars on "Celebrity Apprentice" on June 16,'" Kiger says. "I hope he's serious this time."
Perhaps because of Trump's greater efforts to build a campaign this time around, even some longtime GOP operatives have taken a softer stance on his possible bid. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and communications consultant, says that the real estate tycoon has a legitimate message the public deserves to hear. Though he "may not have felt this way a year ago," he says, he's since seen him speak to crowds of sympathetic voters.
"Obviously, Trump does not agree with the mainstream GOP on a number of issues," Luntz said. "But if he wants to run, it's his right, and Republicans would be making a mistake by attacking him, because there are parts of his message that people will agree with very strongly."
Even if they don't completely buy his message, at the very least, most voters know who Donald Trump is. "He's got the name recognition," Radloff said, "that he can certainly go toe to toe with Clinton on."
Unfortunately for Trump, though, his name recognition comes at a price: He has, by far, the lowest net-favorability of anyone considering running for president, and 74 percent of GOP primary voters say they'd never even consider voting for him. If he follows through with his promises to run, his longshot bid for the White House will be an uphill battle fit for reality television.
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