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First Read: Making Sense of the Trump Bump

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Making sense of Trump’s bump in the polls

As the political world tries to make sense of Donald Trump and his rise in the polls, it’s worth taking a stroll down memory lane. Four years ago, in the April 2011 NBC/WSJ poll, your early leaders in the national GOP presidential horserace were Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and, yes, Donald Trump (!!!). In the July 2011 NBC/WSJ poll, the leaders were Romney and Michele Bachmann. In August, it was Rick Perry and Romney. In October, it was Herman Cain and Romney. A month later, it was Romney and Cain again. And in Dec. 2011, it was Newt Gingrich and Romney. So what does that tell us? For starters, the GOP race was incredibly volatile, always featuring Romney vs. an anti-Romney alternative flavor the month. But maybe more importantly, it was about an anti-Romney constituency in search of a candidate. These were voters who weren’t wild about Romney, who weren’t wild about the Republican establishment as a whole, but who wanted someone else. And eventually, they settled on Rick Santorum (the last anti-Romney standing). So if that lesson from 2011-2012 taught us anything, it’s that Trump’s rise isn’t about Donald Trump; folks, he isn’t going to be the GOP’s nominee. Rather, it’s about where his supporters/voters go. Trump’s constituency is very real and perhaps durable -- even if they end up candidate shopping again.

Trump’s message and supporters matter more than his actual presidential prospects

And keep this in mind about Romney: Along his not-so easy path to winning the GOP nomination, he co-opted the messages from his rivals. Remember Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan? Well, Romney was later forced to unveil his own big tax plan. (And the Obama camp poked holes in it throughout the general election.) Remember Romney’s “severely conservative” line? It came as he was fighting Rick Santorum in Feb. 2012. What this tells us is that eventual GOP nominee in 2016 might very well end up co-opting some of the messages and support that Trump is tapping into. And that, maybe more than anything else, is why Trump matters, even if he flames out as a candidate.

Trump’s message: He’s “a refreshing figure who is unafraid to fight back”

So what is the message that Trump is tapping into? Conservative writer David Limbaugh has an answer. “I don't think for a second this means Trump has a realistic chance of getting the GOP presidential nomination, much less winning the presidency, but it is a powerful indication that people are tired of what's been going on in the country. In supporting Trump, people are rebelling against political correctness and the refusal of the political class to control our borders.” More: “People are also tired of leftists controlling the narrative and bullying conservatives into silence. They see Trump as a refreshing figure who is unafraid to fight back. That doesn't mean they agree with everything he says.” Bottom line from Limbaugh: The more the political class screams about Trump, he becomes more credible with these voters.

What’s the better stage for the rest of the GOP field

Being at that first debate with Trump or at the earlier forum without him? Here’s one final point we’ll make about Trump: Given how we expect that first GOP debate to play out with Trump playing the starring role, will it really be a negative to be at Fox’s kid’s table -- the earlier forum for the candidates who aren’t in the Top 10? Think about it: It might be EASIER for a candidate to stand out at the earlier forum, rather than what promises to be a surreal debate with Trump as the center of attention. An honest question: Do the other GOP candidates want to be with Trump or without him?

Joel Benenson, call your office

If it weren’t for the huge focus on Trump, these Quinnipiac poll numbers out of the battleground states of Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia would get more attention: Hillary Clinton is trailing in all three states against the top GOP competition. More significantly, her fav/unfav rating in all three states is upside down -- and in the minus-20s in Colorado and Iowa. We’re sure that Democrats will quibble with the polls’ methodology, and they’ll argue that these state polls are inconsistent with what the national polls are showing. But can party I.D. and methodology makeup 20 points of unfavorable ratings? These polls aren’t a good story for Hillary or Democrats, and they feed a larger narrative that something is simply off with the campaign, even if the national polls still show her leading her GOP opposition. What say you, Joel Benenson and Geoff Garin?

The Undisciplined John Kasich

First, let us acknowledge this fact: John Kasich deserves to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. He’s the two-term governor of Ohio; he has a 60% approval rating in his state; and as the former House Budget Committee Chairman, he certainly knows how Washington works. That said, Kasich’s longwinded, rambling presidential kickoff speech underscores his biggest weakness outside of expanding Medicaid in his state: He’s undisciplined. In fact, he makes Joe Biden – of all people – seem disciplined by comparison. Undisciplined candidates make for great stories and colorful quotes. But they don’t usually win hyper-focused presidential contests.

An aggressive Chamber of Commerce

Finally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is up with new TV ads for John McCain in Arizona and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire. Yes, it’s early. But if you want to get ahead of the TV-ad clutter that’s coming next year, why not get a head start? And these aren’t their first ads of the cycle. They’ve been up in Nevada, Ohio and Illinois, out-maneuvering Democratic-supporting counterparts.

On the trail

Jeb Bush stumps in both South Carolina and New Hampshire… John Kasich, a day after announcing his presidential bid, is also in the Granite State, as is Lindsey Graham… Carly Fiorina stumps in Iowa… Martin O’Malley and Rick Perry both deliver speeches in DC… And Scott Walker is in Nashville, TN.

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