CNN poll of South Carolina: Trump 38, Cruz 22, Rubio 14, Bush 10

In lieu of a QOTD, at long last here’s a survey of the next battleground by a major pollster. The old CW from a month ago: “Ted Cruz matches up really well with South Carolina’s evangelical electorate!” The new CW today: “Ted Cruz *might* be able to hold Trump under 40 percent!”

I accepted after New Hampshire that Trump’s going to be the nominee so I can laugh about this now. “Ha.” See?

Not a disastrous poll for Rubio as he’s still ahead of Jeb here, but night and day compared to the PPP survey that I blogged this morning:

Trump’s lead is bolstered by widespread perceptions of him as the candidate best able to handle the economy, immigration and ISIS, and further, that he has the best chance to win in November and would be most likely to change the way things work in Washington…

Trump holds an even broader lead among white evangelical voters in the state, who typically make up a majority of Republican primary voters. He tops Cruz by nearly 20 points among this group: 42% Trump, 23% Cruz, 14% Rubio, 9% Bush, 5% Carson and 1% Kasich.

Trump by 20 over Cruz — among white evangelicals. Against all logic, Cruz is actually doing slightly better with voters outside that group than inside. Depending upon how plausible you find CNN’s numbers (the margin of error here is five percent), that’s either smoking-gun proof that this poll is FUBAR or smoking-gun proof that Trump is going to waltz to the nomination, even if he ends up in a two-man race with Cruz. Trump doesn’t even need to win evangelicals to stop Cruz; all he has to do is be competitive and then clean up as the non-evangelicals in the electorate break heavily for him. (Relatedly, per CNN’s crosstabs, Trump leads Cruz by 10 among self-identified conservatives, 36/26. Go figure.)

If you’re anti-Trump and looking for reasons to hope — or at least reasons to think Trump’s “Bush lied” remark at the debate really did hurt him — here’s the best CNN can do:

The poll suggests Trump’s support may have softened after Saturday’s debate among the GOP candidates. In interviews conducted before the debate, 40% backed Trump, compared with 31% who said they supported him after the raucous matchup between the remaining candidates in the field. Two candidates who attempted to remain above the fray in the debate — Carson and Kasich — each appeared to get a bump in the post-debate interviews, though the increase for both candidates was within the margin of sampling error for the post-debate interviews.

The poll was conducted over six days, four of which happened before the debate and two after, so the sample suggesting a downturn in Trump’s numbers is small but still noteworthy. If Trump really did hurt himself, there’s still plenty of time left for that to matter: A majority of 51 percent say they haven’t definitely decided on their candidate yet. On the other hand, the polls in South Carolina right now are strikingly consistent in placing Trump in the mid- to high 30s. Cruz’s numbers are all over the board, ranging from 12 percent in one poll to 23 in another, but for Trump it’s a drumbeat — 37, 35, 33, 35, 38. No wonder the guy feels safe flirting with conspiracy theories about Justice Scalia’s death. He’s got enough air underneath him that he doesn’t need to worry about dipping a little.

Here’s Obama from earlier this afternoon maintaining his belief that Trump won’t be president because the American people’s judgment is better than that. Um. Exit question via Ben Domenech: Since it’s probably already time to start thinking ahead to conservative third-party options in November, how about Romney/Rice? Or just Rice?

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