National polls taken in August in the year before a presidential election do not reveal a great deal about whom the parties are going to nominate at their conventions the following summer. Still, you know this national poll of self-identified Republicans is not what Republican consultants, members of Congress, donors, and governors wanted to see after the Fox News debate.
From an establishment point of view this is a shockingly multifaceted disaster.
Let us count the ways:
1) Trump is unbowed, unbent, and unbroken
The Fox News debate hosts went hard at Trump and probably succeeded in making him even more toxic to a general election audience, but they didn't actually dent his support. Trump as the GOP nominee remains fantastically unlikely, but for now at least, Republicans need to keep talking about him, the media is going to keep covering him, and an independent run seems like a real possibility.
2) Ben Carson is rising, not falling
Before Trump-mania, the world was prepared for Ben Carson to play the role of not-gonna-be-the-nominee-but-polling-well-early. That meant Trump largely seemed at first to be overshadowing Carson. But Carson's poll numbers are now strong and rising. With Trump in first and Carson in second, all the actual politicians are lagging way behind.
3) Ted Cruz is beating the rest of the real politicians
Unlike the guys in first and second place, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a real politician. And while it would be unusual for a first-term senator to win a presidential election, it did happen as recently as 2008, so it's not the craziest idea in the world. What would be crazy, however, would be for a party to nominate a first-term senator who's despised by the party's congressional leadership and whose record in office consists largely of counterproductive tactical blunders.
4) The Trump/Carson/Cruz/Huckabee vote is bigger than the Bush/Walker/Rubio/Kasich/Christie vote
Back on August 5, I was dismissive of Trump's lead in the polls on the grounds that when the more mainstream candidates' support was consolidated it still overwhelmed Trump. That's no longer really the case.
The combined 26 percent behind Bush/Walker/Rubio/Kasich/Christie is basically neck-and-neck with Trump. A majority of Republican voters currently say they like Trump, Carson, Cruz, or Huckabee — none of whom are acceptable to the party elites.
Simply consolidating everyone behind one of the candidates who is acceptable to elites isn't going to get the job done. Party leaders need to find a way to actually pry support away from one of the candidates who's unacceptable to them. So far, they have no idea how to do that.
5) The good performances didn't help
Watching the debate, I thought Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had the most impressive performances. So did almost every other journalist I know.
Guess who doesn't get a vote in the GOP primaries? Most of the journalists I know. And yet "can sound good to moderate-to-liberal journalists without conceding much on policy substance" is a skill that would be useful in an actual nominee. But Republican voters don't much seem to care about it.
6) The most likely nominees are underperforming
It still seems very likely that either Jeb Bush or Scott Walker will be appearing on the ballot in November 2016. The August slide in their poll numbers reminds us, however, that so far Bush has looked rusty and Walker has looked dull. These guys are having trouble getting Republican rank-and-file to care about them. And while there's little chance that will result in Trump or Carson becoming the nominee, it does mean that to ultimately win Jeb or Walker may have to fire up crowds with increasingly extreme positions.
Walker's debate contention — undisputed by Bush — that to be authentically pro-life requires making abortions illegal even when necessary to prevent a pregnant woman from dying is a hint of the kind of stance a long primary can draw out.
7) Mike Huckabee ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
For years now, people have been talking about Republicans' "strong bench" compared with the weak set of Democratic Party alternatives to Hillary Clinton. That bench is the legacy of the bumper crop of governors elected in the GOP's sweeping 2010 midterm victory, almost all of them reelected in 2014.
And yet, guess who is beating every single member of that farm team? A former governor who left office in 2007, ran for president in 2008, and whose views are anathema to the party's donor base.