JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Election 2016 has already become one of the most controversial campaign seasons in the past 60 years.
At the center of it all, a man who has never run for public office and the party he seems at odds with, while trying to win its nomination.
Donald Trump's campaign appears to be changing the Republican Party.
“GOP” stands for Grand Ole’ Party, a nickname for Republicans, but the “party” seems to have been replaced with a war of sorts: a battle that seems destined to change the Republican Party, no matter who becomes the nominee.
“Right now, the Republican Party is in disarray. Right now, the Republican Party is deeply fractured,” said Rick Mullaney, director of Jacksonville University's Public Policy Institute.
Trump has the attention of observers like Mullaney, who said, as others have, that the GOP’s establishment can’t seem to get a handle on the man who seems headed for the nomination for president.
“If Donald Trump has the plurality going into the convention and there's a contested convention and he does not get the nomination, that will be problematic,” Mullaney said. “His supporters and Donald Trump will feel aggrieved. However, if you go with Donald Trump, there's a huge part of the mainstream, they don’t want Donald Trump, there's a fracture.”
Confusion, disappointment and comparisons to reality TV are part of what Dr. Susan MacManus sees with the Trump effect on the GOP.
“The stakes are very high, because Florida is such an important state in national politics,” said MacManus, a political professor at the University of South Florida. “It really showed once and for all the strong relationship between pop culture and politics, and, of course, he got his start in a reality show, 'The Apprentice,' where everything he did was attention-grabbing, and he was always saying 'You're fired!' (and) not necessarily being nice, so I mean, he understands the whole fascination of Americans with reality show television, and he's brought it right into the political arena.”
While observers weigh in and watch with amazement, other Republicans seem bent on tearing down Trump’s towering poll performance and the chances he has to represent conservatives in the general election.
“If you don't want to see Donald Trump as the nominee, if you don't want to hand the general election on a silver platter to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, then I ask you to join us,” presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had a similar plea.
“Leadership is not about going to angry and frustrated people and saying, 'You should be even angrier and more frustrated, and you should be angry and frustrated at each other, and if I can get enough of you to be angry and frustrated at the other people, you are going to vote for me, and I am going to win.' That is not leadership,” Rubio said.
But some insiders said they understand Trump's appeal to the public.
“The truth is Donald Trump has really been speaking to what a lot of voters are feeling right now,” said Susan Hepworth, former spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida. “He invokes that emotion people want to feel, and people believe he's really going to fight for them and he's going to stand up for them against Washington.”