Donald Trump might win the GOP nomination

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Donald Trump is looking increasingly likely to win the Republican nomination in 2016 – and it may not even be close.

Four months after being widely dismissed as a celebrity candidate who would wither under scrutiny, Trump isn’t just defying political gravity. He’s powering past it as he expands his leads in both national polls and critical early voting states.

A new Reuters poll conducted mostly after the November 13 attacks in Paris found Trump with more than double the support of his nearest rival nationally, taking 36 percent of Republican primary voters to Ben Carson’s 14.6 percent. A Morning Consult poll released Tuesday showed the billionaire with an even loftier lead, polling 38 percent to Carson’s 19 percent as Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz languished in the single digits.

A University of Massachusetts survey released Monday shows a closer contest – but Donald Trump still manages to outpoll the fading Ben Carson by nine points.

The surge could prove ephemeral. The aftermath of last week’s terror attacks has clearly boosted Trump, who polls show Republicans trust to fight terror more than any other candidate.

But even if Trump loses all the ground he’s gained in the next few months as the national conversation shifts away from terrorism – and that’s a big “if” – Trump is still in an enviable position to seize the nomination.

What? Who me? Donald Trump
What? Who me? Donald Trump

Polling shows him to be dominant in New Hampshire, the first primary state of the nation. He’s led every poll there since September, almost always by double digits and sometimes doubling or even tripling the support of the runner-up. He edges Ben Carson in Iowa half a percentage point, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls taken there in the last month – statistically insignificant, but evidence that a Trump victory in the nation’s first caucus can’t be ruled out – and could likely be followed by a blowout victory in New Hampshire.

“Trump’s got an organization in place,” Tyler DeHaan, the chairman of Iowa’s Dallas County Republican Party, told the Los Angeles Post-Examiner. But he warned that the situation in Iowa is extremely fluid. “If there’s one thing I’m going to predict, it’s that there’s a going to be a lot of volatility between now and caucus night.”

And after that? A new CNN/ORC poll shows Trump running away in both South Carolina’s primary and Nevada’s caucuses, with Trump doubling Carson’s support in South Carolina and leading Carson by 16 points in Nevada while all other candidates poll in the single digits.

The South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses will be held within three days of each other, so a candidate winning both of them could have real momentum going into Florida, which holds its winner-take-all primary on March 15.

But Trump may not need much momentum from a string of early state wins to prevail in Florida. According to a new Florida Atlantic University poll, Trump is strengthening in Florida, with 36 percent of GOP voters backing him thus far. To put that in perspective, Trump has more support there than both of Florida’s favorite son candidates, Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio, combined.

“I think it’s a must-win for both of them,” said Adam Smith, the political editor of Florida’s Tampa Bay Times. “A lot of Jeb Bush’s allies now wish the legislature hadn’t tried to help him by making the contest winner-take-all.”

Florida’s status as a must-win for the Bush and Rubio campaigns isn’t just a result of high expectations for them in their home state — it also speaks to their lack of opportunities elsewhere. If polling is to be believed, there simply aren’t any great options among the early voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — to stop Donald Trump before he claims all of Florida’s delegates.

If two weeks are an lifetime in politics, then the 73 days until the first votes will be cast in the nomination battle are more like an eon, and a lot can change. The polls could swing dramatically against Trump as GOP voters scrutinize his record more closely (although GOP party elders have been saying that’s imminent for months now.) He could slowly fade as Ted Cruz carries out his not-so-secret strategy to inherit Trump’s support from rock-ribbed conservatives. Or an establishment alternative could stave off the Donald as the field narrows.

But if all that speculation is justified, another possibility should be considered, as it’s born out by today’s numbers. It’s very possible Donald Trump wins Iowa, romps to victory in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, and lays waste to his Floridian rivals (and what’s left of the establishment candidates in the race) by taking Florida and its treasure trove of delegates. The string of victories would deprive his rivals of oxygen, leaving them up against a lavishly funded billionaire who is deeply in sync with the party base and riding a surge of momentum that causes the lion’s share of Super Tuesday states to fall in line and sharply salute him.

Increasingly, pundits are recognizing Donald Trump as a legitimate contender for the Republican nomination. But he’s more than a contender. He’s the favorite.