We’re 12 hours away from knowing whether the “Trump fade” hinted at by last week’s results is real or not, but if you’re looking for poll data to support the thesis in the meantime, you can’t do better than this. I can’t think of a poll taken this year, state or national, that’s looked worse for him. He’s still ahead but Cruz is now within single digits and every important trendline is steering in the wrong direction for him.
I’ve never believed that he has a hard ceiling, for the simple reason that the subtraction of candidates from the field should mean the addition of new votes from that candidate’s supporters to Trump’s totals. And yet, 40 percent looks suspiciously like a ceiling:
I remember when Trump was going to get half the Jeb/Carson/Christie vote and cruise to 45 percent. pic.twitter.com/KYaULO1rSM
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) March 8, 2016
Candidates may be dropping out (Ben Carson was only the latest) but it might also be that anti-Trump sentiment is spreading quickly enough outside Trump’s base that those new votes I mentioned are getting harder to come by.
Favorable ratings also indicate an increasingly tenuous standing within the party. In early January, Republicans clearly gave Trump more favorable than unfavorable reviews, 60 percent to 39 percent. That has narrowed to a 53-46 margin, with negative marks at their highest level in Post-ABC polling since Trump entered the race. His positive ratings also trail Cruz’s 64 percent and Rubio’s 63 percent.
The Post-ABC poll finds that more than half of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents think Trump is dishonest, does not understand their problems, lacks the right experience, and does not have the right personality and temperament to be an effective president. By contrast, more than 6 in 10 Republicans say Cruz is honest, empathetic, and has the right temperament and experience; similar shares say Rubio has the first three qualities, while half say he has the right experience.
In a hypothetical head-to-head test of strength between Trump and Cruz, Republicans say they prefer the senator by 54 to 41 percent. Rubio is a narrower favorite in a one-on-one test against Trump, with an edge of 51 to 45 percent. The survey did not test a Trump-Kasich face-off.
Dip into the crosstabs and you’ll find that, among non-Trump and non-Cruz voters, Cruz wins … 72/17. In other words, if the field clears, virtually all of Rubio’s and Kasich’s support goes to Cruz over Trump. No wonder Cruz suddenly seems keen to finish off Rubio in Florida by starving him of conservative votes there; if these numbers are right, Cruz could beat Trump the rest of the way even if Trump has Florida in his back pocket.
Another killer data point: The #NeverTrump contingent within the GOP may be larger and more durable than thought.
He has a bare majority of his own party saying they’d be satisfied with his nomination and nearly a third say they’d be “very dissatisfied,” twice as many as say so for any of the other final three. Among the wider electorate, his favorable rating is 30/67(!) and, as noted in the excerpt, he’s collapsed on key “presidential” qualities:
To put that in perspective, even Hillary Clinton outpolls him on honesty, finishing with a 37/59 rating. Cruz is at least 15 points better than Trump in every metric; Rubio is at least 15 points better on three of the four, finishing nine points ahead of Trump on having the right experience. The only way you get down to 25 percent or so on questions like this, obviously, is if a significant part of your own party is giving you thumbs down in addition to all of the poor ratings you’re getting from voters in the other party.
And yet, as bad as all of this is for Trump, I wonder how much worse the numbers might be if Republican voters started to view him as unelectable. Right now I think they don’t. Trump’s led wire to wire in the primary, he has the financial resources to blitz Hillary in the general election in theory, he’s constantly talking about winning over centrist Democrats and expanding the party, etc. His whole image is grounded in the perception that he’s a winner. For the average low-information voter, why couldn’t the consummate winner win the election in November? WaPo’s numbers are a strong argument why not. As is this piece yesterday by Megan McArdle, who says Trump is far too poor to effectively fund a general election campaign by himself:
I direct you to his personal financial disclosure form, which said he had about $300 million in cash and marketable securities. That’s a lot of money! Stunningly, however, it is not enough money to run a major presidential campaign, which now clocks in at around $1 billion…
Of course, maybe people just aren’t bothering to send money because he says he’s self-funding. Maybe in the general election, he could plead for funds and they’d open their wallets. Only … part of his appeal is that he’s so very rich that he doesn’t need donations. How long does that appeal last if it turns out he doesn’t have that much money in the bank and needs donors just as much as other politicians do?
He could maybe mortgage some of his interests, borrowing a billion dollars to fund a campaign. But this seems … unlikely. For one thing, by the most generous non-Trump estimates of his net worth, that would mean mortgaging about a quarter of his assets for a near-certain loss. Or mortgaging less but spending down all his liquid assets.
He could accept public financing as the GOP nominee, although that won’t get him anywhere near parity with Hillary. Small Republican donors will contribute, but look back again at those numbers showing how many are dissatisfied with the thought of him as nominee. He may have less of a donor base than other Republican nominees have had. Wealthy Republican donors will also help him out, but there too he might be at a comparative disadvantage as some of them balk at supporting him. Some might even end up backing Hillary. Trump would be forced to make up the difference with Clinton with lots of earned media, at which he’s done an expert job in the primary — except that it’s conventional wisdom among Republicans that the media will be much harder on him this summer and fall when it’s Hillary Clinton, not Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, who stands to suffer if they aren’t. I still think Trump can win but it’s not a stretch to believe he’d have a tougher time of it than Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich. The more Republican voters come to see that too, the more his lead will slip. As I say, we’ll have an inkling sometime tonight.
Exit question: If Trump had prepared diligently for the debates and had spent, say, $50 million in attack ads against Cruz and Rubio, would the race be over already?