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Politics

The more Trump is bashed, the more his supporters back him

Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to supporters before his rally aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

(Cliff Owen / AP)

The more rivals and pundits criticize Donald Trump’s candidacy, the more his supporters dig in and side with his assessments of the country.

That was a key takeaway when 29 self-described Trump supporters huddled in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday night to field an array of questions about Trump, the billionaire businessman turned Republican presidential front-runner.

Among the participants, support for Trump grew over the hour and a half they answered questions about Trump’s temperament and insults he’s lobbed at rivals and the media, mirroring the pattern of deepening support for him over the life of his candidacy. Amid uproars over his inflammatory rhetoric -- calling Mexicans “rapists,” implying a Fox News reporter was menstruating when she asked tough questions and calling this week for a “total and complete” ban of Muslims entering the country -- his standing in the polls strengthened.

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Each of the participants in Wednesday’s focus group were asked to gauge the likelihood that they’d support Trump on a scale of one to 10. At the start of the night, 10 people said they were at nine or 10, noted David Merritt, managing director of Luntz Global, a political firm led by longtime Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who conducted the focus group. By the end of the night, 16 said that they were that likely to back him.

“His support is more intense than any candidate in this race and it’s shown that in the polls,” said Merritt. “We’ve found the more that he’s criticized as a candidate, the stronger the support actually becomes.”

All of the 29 participants – 20 men and nine women – live in the Washington area and voted for Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, in 2012. Their political ideology spanned from strongly conservative (seven) to moderately conservative (17) to moderate (four) and who identified as one moderately liberal. A handful had college degrees.

On Trump’s plan to  bar Muslims from entering the country, 17 of the 29 participants said they supported the idea.

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“Trump is the only one who would come out and say something like this. No one else can say it,” said Tina Collier, 65, who lives in Arlington, Va. “You know what Trump does? He says something completely crazy and inflammatory, and then he dials back and explains it. To me he’s whip-smart, he’s a leader, he’s going to do things other people haven’t done.”

Scott Mexic, a businessman from McLean, Va., said that despite some of Trump’s ideas, he still believes the business tycoon a would make a good commander-in-chief.

“He says some things that are off-color,” Mexic said. “But I still think he’s a leader.”

Merritt noted that members of the focus group believed the media doesn’t understand the threat of terrorism and thus is unable to fairly cover Trump.

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, and more recently in San Bernardino, Trump’s campaign has focused largely on concerns about national security, although he’s offered mostly vague details as to how to combat Islamic State, the extremist group the attackers pledged allegiance to.

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Trump has made headlines in his vows to close mosques and create a database to register Muslims in the United States. Moreover, he’s said he saw “thousands of people” cheering in New Jersey as the World Trade Center towers collapsed in the Sept. 11 attacks – a claim debunked as false by local law enforcement and elected officials. During Wednesday’s focus group, 12 participants said they believed Trump’s claim.

“I was there,” insisted Clarissa, a female member of the focus group. “There were people cheering in the streets, visibly happy.” She did say didn’t know whether they were Muslim.

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With less than two months until the first votes are cast in the 2016 nominating contests, Trump still has not ruled out a possible run as an independent should he not secure the Republican nomination.

“If [Republicans] don’t treat me as the front-runner ... if the playing field is not level, then certainly all options are open,” Trump told CNN on Wednesday. In September, Trump signed a pledge to forgo an independent bid for the White House.

And, for the most part, his supporters would follow him, based on Luntz’s focus group.

Nineteen of the 29 said they would back Trump as an independent if Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a viable challenger for the nomination, were to win the Republican nomination and Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee. Moreover, 14 of the 29 participants said they would back Trump’s third-party run if Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas were the GOP nominee and Clinton was at the at the top of the Democratic ticket.

“There is a deep and intense level of support,” said Merritt. 

“It’s intense and potentially lasting,” he said.

Times columnist Doyle McManus contributed to this report. 

Follow @kurtisalee for political news

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