Is this Trump's 'bloop'?

What's going on with Donald Trump?

The political news cycle has been dominated for weeks by his meteoric rise in contention for the Republican presidential nomination. With an 11-point lead in recent polls, Trump is sure to be the elephant in the room (of elephants) at the first GOP debate of the 2016 campaign Thursday night in Cleveland.

As the current (and totally surprising) frontrunner, he'll be the target of derision among the other candidates, not to mention audiences, voters, pundits and self-proclaimed political experts.

So then ... the question on everyone's mind is: How will Trump do Thursday night?

And more importantly: How much of a difference can a debate make for a candidate?

On the face of it, Trump's moment in the sun looks a lot like what happened with Republican hopefuls during the 2012 presidential race.

If you recall, that race was full of "bloops." Or call them blips, peaks, pops, tops ... whatever. Those harried weeks when some candidate would come out of nowhere and poll above Mitt Romney for a few days and then implode like the Chinese stock market. It was almost like—and many conjectured this at the time—the Republicans were praying for someone, anyone other than Romney. In the end, those prayers were not answered.

Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum each took their turn at the top of the heap—their bloop—for a few news cycles before the party settled on Romney. Just as one candidate would appear to be "the one," voters abandoned them to look further. Throughout, Romney never dipped below second in a five-poll running average. That's the key thing to remember.

Nowhere during the process did Romney dip below second place in a five-poll running average. For reference, that's where Jeb Bush is—still staying in the top two despite other bloopers having their moment.

Even this early in the campaign season, Trump's ascendance looks an awful lot like examples from 2012. His 11-point lead in a five-poll running average is just shy of the biggest lead anyone had over Romney last time. (Gingrich led by 14 points in early December 2011.) Even so, Trump's 23 percent leading level is not big by the swinging standards of 2012.

Perry's moment came in September 2011 when he peaked above 30 percent in the polls. His star had long been in decline—closer to 10 percent—by the time his infamous "oops" moment during a CNBC-hosted debate in November finished him off for good. Perry's debate flub could be a good lesson for The Donald on the importance of keeping your facts and policies straight. (It could be, but let's face it, it won't be.)

Trump is no stranger to publicity and has benefited in the polls after catching heat for things he said about Mexican immigrants and John McCain. It's possible that Trump can gain from the heightened public forum of a debate stage, especially if he succeeds in bringing the debate down to to name-calling, petulant levels.

Donald Trump
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Donald Trump

Back in 2011-2012, Gingrich most benefited from going head to head with his opponents. His popularity grew the most during periods where there were several debates in rapid succession: Between mid-November and mid-December 2011, his popularity almost doubled to 36 from 20 percent before cresting and sinking back to 22 in the debate-free second half of December.

And then true to form, Gingrich's debate prowess helped boost his poll numbers again during the five-debate period in late January 2012, before tapering off and ending below 20 percent.

Whether Trump's popularity weathers Thursday's debate is hard to guess -- his unorthodox candidacy is both a liability and what seems to draw voters to him. As Nate Cohn wrote over at the Upshot, "the history books aren't exactly full of candidates like Mr. Trump and don't offer us much guidance."

In any case, in a historical sense we've only just started this election cycle. By this time four years ago, no one had seriously challenged Romney's supremacy on the race. We're just starting the roller coaster this time around. A lot of bloops are still to come.