Vicki Sciolaro knows why Donald Trump is so popular.
“He’s bold. He’s brazen,” she said. “People are tired of the same old same old.”
As Sciolaro and thousands of other Kansas Republicans get ready to caucus Saturday — and as Missouri Republicans prepare for their March 15 primary — polls in both states suggest voters agree with Sciolaro’s view. In fact, Trump remains the strong favorite to win his party’s presidential nomination.
But some Republicans say the polls may disguise a danger for Trump. The flamboyant businessman, they say, remains a riddle in the middle of the country: in plain sight, yet strangely missing.
Trump has virtually no political presence in Kansas. He has landed just one important endorsement, from Secretary of State Kris Kobach. He hasn’t appeared anywhere in the state and as of Wednesday had purchased no airtime on major TV stations in Kansas City or Wichita.
Friday, Trump canceled a planned appearance in Washington, D.C. and said he would hold a rally in Wichita just before the caucuses start.
To date, Trump has relied on free media and his outsized personality to dominate the campaign conversation. It’s worked spectacularly in some primary states.
But it hasn’t been successful in caucus states like Kansas. To date, four states have held GOP caucuses. Trump has lost three of them.
Caucuses require campaign discipline, political pros say. Candidates must identify their voters, convince them to sit through a lengthy and confusing meeting, then get them to show up.
Many terms have been used to describe Trump’s candidacy, but “discipline” is rarely one of them.
Missouri, which votes March 15, may be more favorable ground for the front-runner. It’s an open primary, meaning Democrats and independents attracted to Trump’s outsider message can vote for him.
Even in Missouri, though, Republicans say Trump’s campaign is largely invisible.
This week, the Star asked Trump’s campaign directors in both states to discuss the race. Both declined, citing orders from New York. The New York office had nothing to say.
Other candidates, meanwhile, are running ads. Holding rallies. Making phone calls. Knocking on doors. Raising money. Sen. Ted Cruz barnstormed through Johnson County on Wednesday, and Sen. Marco Rubio plans a Kansas City area stop Friday.
Will it be enough?
“Trump obviously remains the candidate to beat,” said Marvin Overby, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, “but analysis of the recent numbers suggests the GOP race could go on for a while.”
If Trump struggles in either state, it would be a mild surprise. Republican regulars in Missouri and Kansas have long believed that Trump’s coarse campaign style would quickly wear thin in their states, but polls suggest the opposite has happened.
In a Missouri primary poll taken Feb. 26 through Feb. 28, Trump leads all GOP presidential candidates with 32 percent support among likely Republican primary voters. Cruz is 9 percentage points back at 23 percent. Rubio is in third place with 20 percent support, while Gov. John Kasich has 8 percent.
The poll, conducted by Remington Research for the political website Missouri Scout, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percent, with 95 percent confidence.
The numbers show Trump enjoys broad demographic support in Missouri. He leads with men and women. He’s ahead in every age group. He’s leading with Republicans who consider themselves conservative, moderate or liberal.
“He certainly is connecting with a certain segment of the voters, and he connects with the media as far as getting them to pay attention to him,” said Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican who is endorsed Kasich.
Moreover, the primary in Missouri is open — Democrats and independents can cast ballots for the GOP nominee. In other states, crossover votes from disaffected blue collar voters have ballooned turnout, helping Trump.
If Trump wins more than 50 percent of the Missouri primary vote, he’ll capture all of the state’s 52 GOP convention delegates. His opponents will try to hold him below that threshold, then battle Trump in a congressional district or two, where a victory might bring five or 10 delegates.
Mark Anthony Jones, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Committee, flatly predicts Trump will be his party’s nominee.
“I’m OK with that,” he said, “because he will win in 2016.”
Other Missouri Republicans fear the opposite — that Trump at the top of the ticket will not only put the state in play against Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders, but could seriously damage candidates for the U.S. Senate, governor and other down-ballot posts in the state.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, has yet to endorse a candidate, and there are subtle signs he wants to avoid his party’s wrestling match at the top.
“I’m much more in tune with where Missourians are than a lot of things going on nationally,” he said the day he announced his re-election campaign.
Some Missouri Republicans think Cruz may surprise in the state. Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe knows the state’s politics, they say, and Trump and Rubio may be locked in a bitter fight in Florida in the week before the March 15 primaries. Cruz’s socially conservative positions are also popular in rural Missouri, where former congressman Todd Akin did well in 2012.
Cruz may also do well in Kansas on Saturday.
A recent poll conducted for The Star and other news organizations showed Trump leading among the state’s Republicans, but the poll did not identify the preferences of likely caucusgoers. Cruz was second in that survey.
And Cruz won nearly half the votes in an informal straw poll conducted during the Kansas GOP’s state convention Feb. 20 in Overland Park. Trump got less than 2 percent of the vote.
Such an unscientific survey would typically be irrelevant. In this case, though, it reflects the view of Republican regulars in Kansas — precisely the voters most likely to take part in the caucuses.
“The people who go to caucuses are by and large more predictable party people,” said former congressman and agriculture secretary Dan Glickman, a Democrat and a Kansas political veteran. “My guess is Cruz will be more popular in Kansas, in a caucus, than Trump will be.”
Robert Hutchison of Kansas City, Kan., plans to caucus for Cruz on Saturday: “He’s a conservative. He’s also a Christian, and he’s also got some great ideas.”
Rubio’s appearances in Overland Park and Wichita may sway some GOP caucusgoers, and Thursday’s GOP debate on Fox News may have some effect on the Kansas results. Mitt Romney’s brutal attack on Trump on Thursday will play a role, although some Republicans think it will actually help Trump in the state.
Once the campaigns move past the Sunflower State, other contests await. Michigan, Mississippi and Idaho hold GOP primaries Tuesday, and Hawaii Republicans will caucus that day. A week later comes Ohio, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina — and Missouri. Another Super Tuesday.
By then, Kansas and Missouri Republicans will have either made up their minds or decided to sit out the nomination race.
Kimberlee Hutchison, Robert’s wife, is still working through her choices. It hasn’t been easy.
“It’s just really too much craziness at this point,” she said. “I’m just kind of waiting for it to weed itself out.”
Rubio is coming to Overland Park
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has added a Kansas City area stop to his presidential itinerary.
The campaign says Rubio will appear Friday evening at the Overland Park Marriott. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m., with the event starting an hour later.
You have to register online for the event.
Rubio, who follows Sen. Ted Cruz into Kansas, also will campaign in Wichita and Topeka on Friday.
Kansas Republicans caucus Saturday.