Editors' pick: Originally published Feb. 24.
In the hours leading up to the Nevada caucus, Donald Trump mused about punching a protestor and againfloated the idea of murdering someone to test the loyalty of his support base. Yet, on Tuesday night Trump won his most astounding victory so far. Evidence continues to mount that there is nothing Trump can say or do to torpedo his campaign.
Trump crushed his competition in Nevada, landing more than 45% of the vote. His chief rivals, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, trailed more than 20 points, despite the real estate billionaire's bombast.
He pulled the same move in his successful South Carolina campaign. In the days leading up to the primary, Trump said he likes the Obamacare individual mandate for everyone to have health insurance, the cornerstone of the health care law and also the aspect most hated by Republicans. He criticized the Iraq War and President George W. Bush heavily in a state that loves Bush and that is home to a large population of military personnel and veterans. And he won handily, at the same time forcing once-presumed GOP nominee Jeb Bush out of the race.
"Clearly, there is something about his candidacy and what he represents that protects him against desertion based on his behavior," said Dave Hopkins, political scientist at Boston College and co-author of the 2011 book Presidential Elections: Strategies and Structures of American Politics. "His supporters, maybe they don't care, or they just don't care enough, about his criticisms of Republicans, his idiosyncratic behavior, his outspokenness. He's become a symbol of a broader disaffection that seems to sustain his campaign despite sort of violating the usual laws of politics."
There seems to be nothing Trump can do or say to stop his own momentum. He's not in control of the GOP nomination race; nobody is.
"The old rules don't apply anymore," said Bob Shrum, Democratic strategist and Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics at the University of Southern California. "He's not winning these voters because of a set of programs, principles and policies, even though has some signature ones, like on immigration. His power is that he speaks the resentments, angers and alienations of a collection of folks who want to America back."
Essentially, Trump's base has decided that he speaks to their anger and that he's the candidate who will change things for them. According to a Nevada caucus entrance poll conducted by the Associated Press, nearly six in 10 Nevada caucus goers said they are angry with the way government is working, and half of that group supported Trump. Moreover, many expressed a strong desire for an outsider to take the White House; no matter what he says or does, that Trump is an outsider will not change.
"Trump has tapped into a feeling among a certain group of Americans who feel like the American dream is no longer attainable to them or to their family," said Joshua Dyck, associate professor of political science as the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He uses this anger to his advantage and redirects it at politicians and a ruling class who many in the public view as incompetent or corrupt, or perhaps both."
Tapping into that emotion is perhaps why Trump can't seem to get in his own way, as much as he seems to try.
"When Donald Trump says something offensive about immigrants, or members of the media, or his opponents, he is harnessing an anger and resentment that already exists in the public," said Dyck. "This is why he doesn't pay political costs for saying outrageous things and sometimes even tends to benefit."
Trump beat his competitors in Nevada among voters who consider themselves somewhat conservative or moderate and those who want a candidate who "tells it like it is." Trump did especially well among Nevada voters over the age of 45 and those without a college degree.
On the issues, caucus-goers most concerned about immigration were most likely support Trump, but he also did well among those worried about the economy, government spending and terrorism. Trump won, by varying degrees, both men and women, voters in every age group over 30 and evangelical voters as well as non-evangelicals, according to a separate entrance poll from NBC News.
In fact, Americans are warming up to Trump. According to a January poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, 65% of Republican primary voters say they can see themselves supporting Trump. Back in March of 2015, just 23% of respondents said the same.
"We've seen protest candidates before, but this is one of those rare occasions where I think a protest candidate could very well become the nominee," said Shrum.
As to what may stand in Trump's way now, it's impossible to tell. If Trump apparently can't stop himself, and voters don't want to, it is up to his rivals to figure out how to slow his march toward the nomination.
"Certainly if he is able to beat [the other candidates] in their own states, that's bad news for them, that's sort of decisive," said Hopkins. Texas, where Cruz is a senator, votes on Super Tuesday, March 1. Ohio, where John Kasich is governor, and Florida, Rubio's home state, vote on March 15. Trump leads in the polls in every contest but Texas, where Cruz has the edge.
The storyline emerging in recent days has been that defeating Trump requires the race to be whittled down to two, with the establishment appearing to back Rubio as the party's chosen fighter. The prevailing wisdom is that the anti-Trump vote will coalesce around whomever is left as his opponent. This may not actually happen.
"That assumes that all of the people who get out, that their voters are going to vote for Rubio, and if you look at the data, the data do not support that," he said. "It's storyline of a Republican establishment that is desperate to not have him be the nominee."
Another question is whether or not Trump actually means the things he says -- a concern voiced by numerous Republicans since Trump threw his hat into the ring -- or is simply a public relations mastermind who has figured out that free media will continue to propel his campaign forward. "Whatever he is doing, we haven't really seen anything like this since Andrew Jackson ran for president in the 1820s," he said.
Now three-for-four in early state voting and heading toward Super Tuesday with a commanding lead in the polls, Donald Trump is riding a wave of momentum that appears to be unstoppable. No one at the top seems to be in control of the Republican presidential race -- not the establishment, not the candidates, and perhaps not even Trump himself.