At last, Trump’s circus tent starts to sag

A highly respected poll shows him dropping into second place after last Saturday’s debate, passed by Cruz and with Rubio gaining ground

Donald Trump speaks at a rally in South Carolina.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Feb. 18, 2016, 8 p.m.

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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