That Donald Trump was supported by 24 percent of Republican voters in the Washington Post/ABC News poll on presidential candidates isn’t the most worrisome number for the GOP. Even scarier is the devastating role that Trump would play as an independent or third party candidate.

The Post poll found this in a three-candidate race in the general election:  Hillary Clinton 46 percent, Jeb Bush 30 percent, Trump 20 percent.  Trump took more votes from Bush than from Clinton. One on one, Clinton beat Bush 50-44 percent.

Republican elites need to come grips with the real Trump threat and not make things worse.  Which is what they have been doing so far.

Calling on Trump to drop out of the race or insisting he is unqualified to be president because of his harsh language zinging John McCain and immigrants from Mexico isn’t working and probably never will.  It’s more likely to cause him to stay in the race.  He does have gigantic ego, after all.

Republicans need to think about who backs Trump at the moment.  It’s a big chunk of the GOP base, at least the anti-immigrant wing.  If Republicans lose these folks next year in the general election, they’re doomed.

Besides his views on immigration, why do these people like Trump?  Two reasons.  One is that Trump says what he thinks.  Sometimes it seems he utters whatever pops in his head.  Most politicians aren’t so candid.  They’ve been trained not to blurt.  Think of Hillary Clinton.  When she takes a question, you can almost see the wheels spinning in her head as she tries to formulate an evasive answer.

The second reason: Trump has all the right enemies.  It’s the folks that are demonized on much of conservative talk radio – the Republican hierarchy, mainstream media, and the pro-immigrant crowd.  Let me paraphrase what Howard Jarvis, the father of California’s tax-cutting Proposition 13, once said in 1978:  when he saw all the bankers, businessmen, politicians of both parties, and their pals lined up against him, he knew with absolute certainty that he could not be wrong.  Trump’s fans are similar, I suspect.

For the moment, I think Trump is in a position like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in the gubernatorial recall election for governor in California in 2003.  Story after well-documented story in the press told of his groping many women, but a majority of voters didn’t appear to care.  It wasn’t that they thought the stories weren’t true. They just wanted the incumbent Democratic governor, Gray Davis, out.  In Trump’s case, his supporters don’t care about all his baggage.

So Republicans have a difficult task. They must deal wisely with Trump with an overriding goal of keeping him from becoming a third party or independent candidate next year.