By Niall Stanage and Jonathan Swan - 11-03-16 06:00 AM EDT
Republican voters are finally coming home to Donald Trump after months of flagging support threatened to put the White House out of reach.
Trump's candidacy has been deeply divisive within Republican ranks, drawing fire from senior officeholders such as Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), past presidential nominees including Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and numerous conservative pundits.
Now, as Republicans face up to the specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency, Trump's numbers are on the rise. But polling experts caution that he is still a few points shy of where he needs to be.
David Winston, a GOP pollster, noted that Romney in 2012 received 93 percent support from voters who identified as Republican, according to exit polls. In most current polls, Trump is a notch lower.
"He was pretty consistently - up to a couple of weeks ago - clearly underperforming," Winston said of Trump. "One of the things you've seen is that he has slowly got back to somewhere between 85 and 90 percent [of Republican voters]. But he's still a bit short."
Winston said there had been several factors working in Trump's favor of late. He said some party loyalists had finally completed the process of "working through the fact that they were unhappy he was the nominee." Trump has also been relatively disciplined on the campaign trail recently, while Clinton has been pushed onto the defensive by a surprise FBI statement about newly discovered emails.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, acknowledged that the GOP nominee had not persuaded all Republican voters but said he has made progress.
"Reverting to type would assume some normal behavior, and we are not seeing that," Murray said. "But you have seen Trump picking up some support from certain segments of the electorate that tend to vote for Republicans - such as white, working-class women, where Hillary Clinton remains stronger than average [for a Democrat] but Trump has been able to gain."
Polling data underlines the point.
Two of the main tracking polls, from ABC News/Washington Post and IBD/TIPP, saw Trump moving up within the past couple of weeks.
The first IBD tracking poll appeared on Oct. 19 and showed Trump receiving the support of 82 percent of Republicans. That figure had climbed to 88 percent by Wednesday. The ABC News/Washington Post tracker first appeared on Oct. 23, giving Trump 83 percent GOP support. He is now up to 88 percent in the same poll.
Similar dynamics are also seen at the state level. Marist College polls of Florida, conducted for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, show Trump's Republican support rising from 76 percent in August to 86 percent one month ago to 88 percent in the most recent survey, conducted just before Clinton was hit with the FBI announcement. In Marist's polling of North Carolina, he rose through those same dates from 80 percent to 86 percent to 89 percent.
There are other factors to Trump's rise among Republicans, insiders say. Key among them is the contribution made by his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Pence, with his unimpeachable conservative credentials, has one job above all others: To bring wayward Republicans into the fold.
Marc Short, a senior adviser to the VP nominee, told The Hill that a speech Pence delivered about ObamaCare in Philadelphia Tuesday was as much about ObamaCare as it was about "using ObamaCare as a vehicle to make the appeal for Republicans to come home."
"Donald Trump has obviously struck a chord with a lot of Americans and has won an enormous amount of independent support - particularly among blue-collar workers and people who are fed up with Washington," Short said.
"But we're still working to consolidate the Republican Party," he added. "Mike is uniquely positioned. ... He has a lot of friendships and associations and is able to uniquely make the appeal as to why this election cycle is so important and why it's important for Republicans to come home."
Some of Pence's private efforts appear to be bearing fruit. Republican members of Congress expressed greater comfort for the ticket after Pence visited them on Capitol Hill in early September.
Even when Pence didn't immediately succeed in securing Republican endorsements, he surely did no harm. Pence privately asked Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to endorse Trump, according to a source familiar with their Capitol Hill meeting in September. And while Cruz declined to endorse Trump following the meeting, Pence took some comfort when the Texan eventually came out for Trump.
Cruz will appear on the campaign trail with Pence on Thursday in Michigan and Iowa, making his first appearances on behalf of the Republican ticket.
Liam Donovan, a former aide to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that recent polls notwithstanding, Trump's "greatest challenge" has been his inability to consolidate self-identified Republicans.
"At some level the base naturally wants to come home, but Trump's mouth keeps getting in the way," Donovan said. "When the polling looks good it's because he is performing like previous nominees - no more, no less."
Donovan said Trump gains with hesitant Republicans only when he campaigns with discipline.
Offering Trump some unsolicited advice, Donovan said, "Put away the Android Twitter app. Let the news cycle consume your opponent instead of trying to seize back the spotlight."