For the record, I have never said, written, or thought that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination. Like pretty much everyone else, I didn’t see him catching on, going as high as he did, or remaining at the top as long as he did, and it never seemed plausible that he would actually win a majority of the delegates at the Republican National Convention this summer.
I understood that there were clearly a lot of really angry, alienated, conservative, and Republican voters who saw something in what Trump was saying and how he was saying it. They seemed bent on “sending a message” to Washington, to career politicians, and to the GOP establishment.
But once they got past the “sending a message” phase and into the “selecting a president” phase, I believed they would seek a more plausible vehicle for their rage. My hunch was that Ted Cruz was going to be that vehicle, no matter what the establishment thought. Trump had been averaging about 35 percent in various national and state polls, which in an 11-way race was a big number.
But that also meant that 65 percent were not for Trump, even if they agreed with him on some things, such as his blunt style and willingness to be politically incorrect. But 100 percent of Republicans not only knew his name, they knew about him, and just 35 percent were for him. My view was that Trump’s support was inelastic, that he had a high floor and a low ceiling, that as the GOP field began to winnow down and as he accumulated more baggage, his lead would evaporate.
Two national polls released in the last 24 hours suggest contradictory things. A CBS News/New York Times survey conducted Feb. 12-16 with a subsample of 581 registered voters likely to vote in GOP primaries put Trump ahead by 17 points at 35 percent, with 18 percent for Cruz, and Marco Rubio and John Kasich effectively tied with 12 and 11 percent, respectively. Ben Carson ran fifth with 6 percent, basically tied with Jeb Bush at 4 percent.
Of the name-brand polls doing national trial heats, ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News/New York Times, CNN/ORC, Fox News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal (Gallup and Pew are not doing horse-race polling so far), CBS/NYT is my least favorite with numbers that often look a little funny. NBC/WSJ is far and away the one I trust the most (those not mentioned here are largely on my “do not fly list,” no matter how much stock other journalists put in them).
That brings me to the NBC/WSJ poll that just came out. For roughly 30 years, this has been the gold standard of presidential polling, conducted by a bipartisan pairing of pollsters who are among the very best in the business. The questionnaire design is far more creative with methodology exceedingly rigorous.
With the first results released Wednesday night, the Feb. 14-16 national poll conducted by outstanding Republican pollster Bill McInturff and his equally talented Democratic counterpart Fred Yang, in conjunction with his mentor, the legendary Peter Hart, suggested something very different—that Trump had either finally jumped the shark and gone too far, or perhaps that voters have begun shifting their priority from sending a message to picking a president. I think we are starting to see Trump’s circus tent start to sag.
The poll, which was conducted after last Saturday night’s GOP debate, showed that among registered voters who said they were likely Repubican-primary voters, Trump had dropped 7 points since last month, from 33 to 26 percent, 2 points behind Ted Cruz who jumped 8 points from 20 to 28 percent. Marco Rubio climbed 4 points from 13 to 17 percent, solidly in third place. John Kasich jumped from 3 to 11 points and occupied fourth place, holding a statistically insignificant lead over Ben Carson. Carson, who at one point been as high as 29 percent and in first place, dropped 2 points to 10 percent. Jeb Bush came in last with 4 percent, down a point from last month. Last April, Bush had been as high as 23 percent and in first place.
Confirming the theory that Trump’s position deteriorates as the field narrows, the NBC/WSJ poll played out four scenarios with three-way contests.
In one, Cruz was first with 32 percent, Trump second with 30 percent, and Marco Rubio third with 26 percent. In a second combination, Cruz had 38 percent, Trump 32 percent, Bush 9 percent. A third combination put Cruz first with 37 percent, Trump with 31 percent, and Kasich with 18 percent. The last put Cruz at 36 percent, Trump at 29 percent, and Carson at 12 percent.
When the poll pitted two candidates against each other, Cruz and Rubio each bested Trump by 16 points, Cruz up 56 to 40 percent, Rubio 57 to 41 percent. Trump did come out on top against Bush by 11 points, 54 to 43 percent, demonstrating just how diminished the Bush brand has become. Against the less-known Kasich, Trump was up by 8 points, 52 to 44 percent.
When asked whether someone could or could not see themselves supporting each candidate, 70 percent of GOP primary voters could see themselves potentially supporting Rubio, 28 percent could not (net plus-42 points), 65 percent could support Cruz, 33 percent could not (net plus-32), 62 percent could support Carson, 35 percent could not (net plus-27), 56 percent could support Trump, 42 percent could not (net plus-14), 49 percent could go with Kasich, 41 percent could not (net plus-8) and just 46 percent could back Bush, 53 percent could not (net minus-7). Kasich probably suffers because voters aren’t as familiar with him as they are with the other candidates. As for Bush, the family brand has just gone sour.
One poll does not make a trend, but my hunch is that we’re seeing the beginning of one. It’s not clear whether the shift is occurring because Trump’s routine has grown stale, or because he went too far in the debate, or because GOP voters have shifted their focus to picking a president rather than sending a message. Maybe even the prospect of a vacant seat on the Supreme Court has reinforced the view that this election is serious business with real consequences. Let me say it again: Trump is not going to be the Republican nominee.
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