Notably similar to the exit polls conducted a week ago in Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, and North Carolina, in which 39 percent said they’d consider a third party if forced to choose between Trump and Hillary. What’s interesting about this result, from CNN’s national poll, is that Trump does very well in other metrics. At 47 percent, he’s near a majority and leads Cruz by 16 points. When Republican registered voters and leaners are asked whether they’d feel “dissatisfied” or “upset” if Trump, Cruz, or Kasich wins the nomination, Trump actually scores lowest on the combined totals for those two answers. He leads among those who say they’d be “upset,” but together with “dissatisfied” he’s at 33 percent versus 38 percent for Cruz and 46 percent for Kasich. At lot goes into that, I think — some people may be “dissatisfied” with Kasich as nominee purely because he’s an also-ran, others may be dissatisfied because he’s a centrist and not a conservative. But it’s worth noting these numbers in light of all the #NeverTrump buzz in conservative media.
In fact, my big knock on CNN in this poll is that they didn’t ask the third-party question vis-a-vis Cruz or Kasich being nominated for comparison. How many Republicans would bolt the party if one of them ends up crowned in Cleveland? As it is, here’s what happens when you ask GOPers whether they’d support an independent candidacy and, if not, why not. Note that those who are comfortable with Trump are just one-third of the party, which is … an odd result when you consider that he’s pulling 47 percent overall.
In addition, 46 percent(!) of Republicans expect that the party will remain divided come November, which means a lot of people already have a third-party candidacy on the brain. If you’re Tom Coburn, you could look at that data and convince yourself that an independent bid has room to grow if GOP voters in the “No, it’ll lead to a Democratic win” category can be convinced that he, not Trump, is a bigger threat to defeat Hillary. Something like that happened in the Colorado gubernatorial race a few years ago when Dan Maes, the Republican nominee, was crippled by scandal and ended up being deserted by droves of Republican voters in favor of third-party Republican Tom Tancredo. (John Hickenlooper, the Democrat, won with more than 50 percent of the vote. Tancredo finished with 36 percent, 25 points ahead of Maes.) Hard to imagine any of Trump’s core voters leaving him for any reason, though, which means his absolute floor would be something like 17 percent of the total electorate. If a third-party candidate is destined to lose at least that much on the right plus a minimum of 48 percent on the left, there’s no rational reason for a “beat Hillary at all costs” Republican voter to abandon the GOP nominee for him. You’re better off sticking with Trump and hoping that Coburn or whoever doesn’t pull too many conservative votes away.
There’s lots of good news for Trump in this poll and the other new national survey from CBS, though. For instance, CNN finds that 60 percent of Republicans think the candidate with the most support in the primaries and caucuses should be named GOP nominee if no one has a majority of delegates at the convention, a big problem for Cruz’s perceived legitimacy if he makes it to Cleveland and somehow ends up on top. Likewise, when CBS asked if it’d be a good thing, a bad thing, or would make no difference if GOP delegates nominated someone who didn’t finish with the most delegates after the primaries, Republicans split 14/65/16. That might matter in May as undecided voters in the remaining states try to decide between Trump and Cruz; if they feel a Cruz nomination in Cleveland would be illegitimate, it might lead them to break for Trump and help him clinch beforehand.
CBS also backs up CNN by finding that Trump isn’t unusually unpopular among Republican voters compared to Cruz, which would explain why Cruz hasn’t surged despite the consolidation of the field lately. Just 17 percent of Republicans say they’d never support Trump; 19 percent say so of Cruz. (#NeverCruz?) More Republicans also say they’d support Trump enthusiastically or with reservations than say so for Cruz. Cruz isn’t even the second choice of a plurality of Republican voters. At 37 percent, Kasich is; Cruz is at 30 percent by comparison. Combine their first and second choice numbers and Kasich is actually slightly ahead(!), 57/56. Kasich also bests Cruz when GOP voters are asked who’s more honest and shares their values. This is not the stuff of which late primary surges are made, assuming the numbers are accurate. We’ll have a better sense from Arizona and Utah in a few hours.