The Slatest

Donald Trump Can’t Afford to Lose His “Front-Runner” Status

Donald Trump gives a speech on Sept. 28, 2015, in New York City.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The current Republican front-runner has a polling problem. A new Fox News survey shows Donald Trump with a single-point lead on Ben Carson, 24 percent to 23 percent, a gap that is well within the survey’s margin of error and 7 points smaller than it was when the same pollsters asked the question last month.

  • Donald Trump: 24 percent, down 2 points from last month
  • Ben Carson: 23 percent, up 5 points
  • Ted Cruz: 10 percent, up 2 points
  • Marco Rubio: 9 percent, no change
  • Jeb Bush: 8 percent, up 1 point
  • Carly Fiorina: 5 percent, down 4 points
  • Mike Huckabee: 5 percent, up 2 points
  • Rand Paul: 3 percent, down 1 points
  • Chris Christie: 1 percent, down 4 points
  • John Kasich: 1 percent, down 3 points
  • George Pataki: 1 percent, no change
  • Bobby Jindal: 1 percent, up 1 point

The results are the latest evidence that the former neurosurgeon is closing in on the former-and-future reality television star. According to RealClearPolitics’ rolling average, Trump’s lead on Carson is now down to a little more than 4 points nationally, less than half of what it was one month ago and less than a third of what it was at the start of September.

The change is more about Carson’s rise than it is about Trump’s fall—as I’ve noted before, the Donald may have found both his polling ceiling and polling floor for the time being—but it still poses a unique problem for a blustery billionaire who relies so heavily on being able to brush off serious policy questions and counter any political criticism by pointing to the scoreboard and declaring: but I’m WINNING! Once Trump no longer has the polls to use as a shield, he’ll need a find a new way to make his case—and there’s nothing to suggest he has a nonpolling Plan B to fall back on.

Worse still for Trump is that if and when he’s overtaken in the national surveys, he’ll lose the GOP front-runner honorific that makes the boorish and ridiculous comments that fall from his mouth as newsworthy as they are. And it is that media attention, at least in part, that inflates his polling numbers, which translates into even more coverage, which in turn boosts his standing in the polls, and so on and so forth until something or someone breaks the cycle. Carson, it appears, may be the man who does just that.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.