The conservative base, responding to national pollsters, are a fickle bunch. Trump may rule the day today, but if history is any guide Trump will start slipping in the next month or so.
There is no doubt that as of August 5, 2015 Trump dominates early polls for the Republican nomination. Conservatives tossing red meat to the masses often garner attention, but these supporters are supporting concepts not people. The person who embodies the concepts most desired at the moment will receive their temporary loyalty. A true base of support takes time to build and does not manifest itself in mini-surges six months before the Iowa Caucuses.
So let us go in the “way back machine” to 2011-2012.
2011-2012 can be characterized by the rise and fall of favorites of the conservative base with the persistence of the establishment Romney. Everyone believed that Romney had the inside track, he had the money and professional campaign to bring him through to the finish line. The conservative base looked for outlets, someone who could be the “anti-Romney.” With different conservatives emphasizing different messages each of the mid-weights enjoyed their day in the sun.
The anti-Romney changed repeatedly throughout 2011 and early 2012.
Bachmann was the first to sieze the sentiment starting around July 1 and running until August 11. Then she won the Iowa Straw Poll but it appeared she expended all of her resources on this event that was just for show. She never recovered after that. Some people blame her for killing the Iowa Straw Poll in 2015.
Next came Perry who surged ahead of Romney, and was the darling of the base from August 12 until October 3. Perry’s downfall? Debate performances where he supported mandatory HPV vaccinations, and where he defended a Texas plan to provide in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants (and called other Republican heartless). It took a little while for the debate performances to diminish his poll numbers, but by early October the base was looking elsewhere.
Enter Cain. Cain was flashy and interesting, and held the base from October 3 until November 13. Cain’s spike in the polls was not as high as for Perry, Gingrich, or Santorum. Cain was the victim (of his own behavior) of a Politico hit piece on October 30, 2011 claiming he had settled multiple sexual harassment suits while CEO of the National Restaurant Association. Cain weathered the storm for a while, casting blame at Perry. Nonetheless, people started to believe the story (which appears to have been true) and Cain declined in the polls.
Around November 13 Gingrich started his upswing which lasted until early January when he performed poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire. He then resurged from January 18 until February 8 2012 as Gingrich won in South Carolina and made a major showing in Florida only to be beat handily by Romney the first week of February. The conservative base did not view him as a capable anti-Romney and left for the last ship still standing (other than Paul, who has a persistent love-hate relationship with the conservative base).
Santorum had his day at the very end. From February 9 until February 28 Santorum was the only viable game in town for the anti-Romney crowd. He did not have the money, message, or organization to pull it out at that point and the rest is history, (although Santorum thinks this meant he actually had a real shot at being the nominee, a problem that plagues us to this day).
The story of 2011-2012 is that each of the major candidates filled the role of “anti-Romney” for the conservative base. None consolidated this vote early (Perry probably had the best chance) and so the slow but steady organized establishment candidate won.
2012 is the only modern media example for us to look at. 2008 essentially had three candidates, but it was McCain’s turn. 2004 was a reelection campaign. 2000 was largely between Bush and McCain neither of which were overly conservative.
Back to 2015-2016.
Look at the RCP chart for July 5, 2015. It appears Trump is running away with the nomination. The truth is Bush is in the exact same role as Romney was in 2011. Trump is experiencing an early spike from a fickle and angry Republican base. This same base supported Bachmann, then Perry, then Cain, then Gingrich, then Santorum in 2011-2012. They feel strongly about who they are currently supporting, but in a few months that preference is likely to be ancient history. The conservative base does NOT want Bush. Trump is the flashiest “anti-Bush” out there. The thrill of Trump will soon diminish as he flails in a debate, or undermines a core conservative principle on the campaign trail, or when the base learns of all of Trump’s flip-flopping, and liberal history.
The question then becomes: Who is poised to grab the momentum from the fickle base as the new anti-Bush?