Did the Paris Attacks Actually Give Donald Trump a Boost?

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Republican Candidates Speak At Sunshine Summit In Orlando
Once again, the conventional wisdom about Trump is completely wrong. Photo: Joe Raedle/2015 Getty Images

The attacks in Paris instantly shifted the political conversation, and led to many predictions that this was the event that would finally make Republican primary voters reconsider their preference for extreme political outsiders. Last weekend The Wall Street Journal said the terrorist attacks, “could shake up the 2016 presidential race, reminding voters of the high stakes and potentially boosting candidates who put their governing experience front and center.” The New York Times reported that the attacks may be “prompting voters to reconsider their flirtations with unconventional candidates and to take a more sober measure of who is prepared to serve as commander in chief.” And after months of insisting Donald Trump and Ben Carson are just flashes in the pan, establishment Republicans told Politico they’d soon be proven right.

But on Thursday, the first polls conducted entirely after the attack showed the exact opposite. A Reuters/Ipsos poll has Trump surging even farther ahead of his rivals, with 37 percent support among Republicans, followed by Ben Carson at 14 percent and Marco Rubio at 11 percent. In a Bloomberg News poll Trump has 24 percent support among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters, with Carson in second at 20 percent, and Rubio in third at 12 percent. Trump also took a more decisive lead in a number of state polls.

So now the conventional wisdom is shifting again: Rather than hurting Trump, his bellicose remarks on foreign policy are actually making him stronger. The Hill reported that “Republican voters have found themselves drawn to Trump’s emphatic rhetoric,” which “seems to be striking a chord.” The Christian Science Monitor remarked, “his trademark bravado appears to offer voters potent comfort in anxious times.” And the Washington Post noted, “Only Trump is willing to say what all the others, particularly the puny politicians, won’t say: we may have to resort to the ‘frankly unthinkable.’ This can’t possibly keep working. Can it?”

Maybe not. Obviously Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric isn’t hurting him, but that doesn’t mean voters are suddenly flocking to Trump because they’re comforted by the thought of persecuting Muslim Americans. Ben Carson surged to second place in the last two months, tying or even surpassing Trump in a number of polls. But after a few weeks of bad press, including his own advisers publicly criticizing his foreign-policy acumen this week, Carson’s numbers are dipping. A look at a Real Clear Politics polling average shows that while Trump isn’t quite as popular as he was in mid-September, he’s consistently been in the lead, hovering around 25 percent since August.

The Boston Globe notes that aside from whatever skills he possesses as a politician and entertainer, with 14 candidates in the race, Trump “can lead the field by owning a particular niche.” While Trump and Carson have some overlap as outsiders, if you’re looking for a bombastic and aggressive candidate with no political experience, Trump is your man. If Bush, Kasich, Christie, and Rubio were one establishment candidate, they’d have a slight lead on Trump in the Bloomberg poll and take second in the Reuters survey.

There might be a stronger argument for voters embracing Trump’s rhetoric in the wake of the Paris attack if it were something new and different. A few weeks ago, the Donald probably would have been voted mostly likely to suggest a religious test for refugees or take a stand against orphaned Syrian toddlers, but this week much of the GOP sounded rather Trump-esque. He was forced to veer into Nazi territory on Thursday just to set himself apart.

Plus, as Slate’s Josh Voorhees notes, “Trump also stands to benefit if the conversation about resettling refugees gets wrapped in the larger debate over immigration.” In the United States this week, foreign-policy issues took a back seat to questions about who we admit into the country — Trump’s top issue. Trump may be picking up some disillusioned Carson supporters, but it’s not a surprise that Americans who were intrigued by talk of a magical border wall and rounding up millions of Mexican “criminals” and “rapists” dig his plan to fence in Syrians and track American Muslims.