Noteworthy not because the numbers here are different from the numbers in other polls but because they aren’t. Most of the surveys of SC this week follow this same trend — Trump safely ahead in the mid-30s and Cruz and Rubio neck-and-neck for second place in the mid- to high teens. Of the last four polls listed by RCP, including this new one from Monmouth, Trump is at 35, 33, 34, and 35 percent. Cruz/Rubio? They’re at 18/18, 14/16, 16/15, and 19/17. (The one outlier is last night’s CNN poll, which has Cruz safely ahead of Rubio, 22/14.) There’s a nonzero chance that Trump not only wins the state on Saturday night but wins it with a total that exceeds the combined percentages for Cruz and Rubio, which would put quite a dent in the self-reassuring conservative spin that Trump is still beatable if only righties can unite behind one candidate in a two-man race.
Trump is the clear favorite of voters who have not been to college (53%), but also garners the support of about 3-in-10 voters with a college education. He leads among both men (36%) and women (34%); among voters under 50 years old (34%) and those age 50 or older (35%); among voters in veterans’ households (38%) as well as non-veterans (32%); and among evangelical Christians (33%) and non-evangelicals (37%) alike. Cruz (31%) barely nips Trump (27%) among very conservative voters, but Trump enjoys the most support of any candidate among somewhat conservative (40%) and moderate (41%) voters.
Overall, 42% of likely voters say they are completely decided on their candidate choice. Another 31% have a strong preference but are willing to leave their options open. Just 11% say they only have a slight preference and 17% say they are really undecided about what they will do on Saturday.
That makes two polls in less than 24 hours showing Trump ahead of Cruz among Cruz’s alleged base of evangelicals, which I assume is an artifact of Rubio and Carson gobbling up some Christian support from Cruz but which remains a fact of political life regardless of the reason. Normally a candidate like Trump who’s unusually strong with subgroups A,B, and C gets beaten by piling up votes from subgroups D, E, and F, which strongly dislike him. The problem is, there are no subgroups like that and Monmouth’s not the only pollster to show it. PPP also found strikingly steady support for Trump among different Republican demographics. The voters who are “supposed to” be against him, like college grads, actually like him just fine, at least by the standards of a three-way race.
Even more interesting than the topline numbers are the candidates’ favorable ratings. Note the trends for Trump and Cruz:
It’s tempting to assume that Trump has become more popular with Republicans as he’s maintained his lead in the polls. Not so. In South Carolina, his favorable rating was net +29 three months ago; today, after a big win in New Hampshire, it’s +9. He’s pulling 35 percent in a race where he can’t even get to 51 percent in favorability. On the one hand, that’s cause for hope among anti-Trumpers that he really does have a hard ceiling of support in the GOP. On the other hand, it’s an amazing feat of efficiency by Trump that he’s convinced most of the likely Republican voters in SC who like him to take the next step and actually vote for him. Compare his numbers to Marco Rubio’s, who’s still pulling a favorable rating of 54 percent, good for a net of +26, but has just 17 percent of the vote to show for it.
Cruz, meanwhile, has slipped to 45/39, which is only slightly better than Jeb Bush’s numbers. He’s gone from +31 during his bromance with Trump in November to +6 now. Yesterday PPP had his favorables at 42/48, which means we now have multiple polls showing a major slide by Cruz over the last few weeks as he and Trump have gotten increasingly nasty with one another. That would be tolerable if Cruz’s “lane” of the race was as clear as Trump’s was, leaving those who like him with little choice but to support him, but it’s not clear. Rubio’s part of that lane too and Rubio is better liked than Cruz is. It’s very hard to look at the trends in South Carolina, both in terms of the overall vote and the trend in favorability, and not conclude that Cruz has lost his war with Trump. And if he finishes behind Rubio on Saturday against all odds, he’ll have lost it very decisively.
If you’re looking for hope among all the dismal numbers lately, Cruz supporter Steve Deace makes the case that these polls of SC are expecting much higher turnout than is realistic, which was the same problem that the polls before Iowa had. A model that relies on off-the-charts turnout should be biased towards Trump, since Trump’s bringing in voters who typically don’t vote reliably in Republican primaries. The more actual turnout on Saturday resembles a true “base” election, the smaller you’d expect the gap between Trump and Cruz to be:
The last three public polls of SC assume a turnout of 1.5 million-2.1 million, except turnout in the state hasn’t gone above roughly 600,000 voters in the past three contested primary cycles. So again we have public polls assuming a turnout model increase of 100% or higher. That only happens in banana republics or when Putin is on the ballot.
Staying in SC, the Gravis Marketing poll says only 54% of the electorate will be evangelicals. But evangelicals were 65% of the electorate there in 2012, and 60% of the electorate in 2008.
One more note on SC, the State House GOP Caucus Poll people are touting claims 55% of the primary electorate will be senior citizens. But they were only 27% of the electorate in 2012, and 35% of the electorate in 2008. Did that many more people really get old in the Palmetto State all of a sudden?
Monmouth didn’t indicate what they expect turnout to be, but as noted, their numbers line up with various other recent polls. As for the Rubio/Bush death match over third place, Jeb is crawling along at just eight percent here, less than half of Rubio’s take and a point behind John Kasich(!). I don’t think he’ll quit if he finishes badly in SC, if only out of pride, but many of his donors will, especially now that Rubio has crept up to pass Cruz for second in at least one national poll. The hour is getting late to stop Trump and there’s zero evidence to think Jeb can do it. The sooner the race narrows to three, the better off conservatives are.