Trump’s had enough solid numbers this week to expect he’ll win tomorrow night going away, but if you’re desperate for hope and looking around for data to cling to, there’s plenty out there. CNN’s survey earlier this week showed Trump dropping like a rock after his “Bush lied!” performance at the debate, from 40 percent to 31. Two days ago we got a national poll from WSJ/NBC showing Ted Cruz, whose support has been flat in South Carolina this week, nosing past Trump to take a two-point lead. Now here comes the WSJ/NBC again — this time using a different pollster than the one that conducted their national poll — and finding Cruz creeping up in SC as Trump’s begun to slip. Hmmmm.
Don’t stop believin’. At least for the next 32 hours or so.
Donald Trump is now leading Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary by 5 points — down from his 16-point lead in the state a month ago, according to results from a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll.
Trump gets support from 28 percent of likely Republican primary voters in the state, while Ted Cruz gets 23 percent. They’re followed by Marco Rubio at 15 percent, Jeb Bush at 13 percent, and John Kasich and Ben Carson at 9 percent each.
In the January NBC/WSJ/Marist poll — conducted before this month’s Iowa and New Hampshire contests — Trump held a 16-point over Cruz, 36 percent to 20 percent, with Rubio at 14 percent and Bush at 9 percent.
Hey, it’s just one poll, right? Actually, no: Just as I’m writing this, a new poll dropped from Clemson University putting Trump at … 28 percent. In fact, take a peek at the RCP average of all South Carolina polls over the last 10 days. On February 14th, the day after his “Bush lied!” comment at the debate, Trump was at 37.0 percent. Five days later he’s at 32.9, partly due to today’s WSJ/NBC but partly also due to a Harper survey that put him at 29. And that average doesn’t include Clemson’s numbers. Also, there have been whispers all week among politicos on social media that some private polls conducted for third-party groups in SC have Trump south of 30. Harry Enten of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site dropped this cryptic tweet last night:
I expect Trump to win in SC, but I've seen some stuff (i.e. numbers) over the past 24 hours that makes me a little uneasy…
— (((Harry Enten))) (@ForecasterEnten) February 18, 2016
Trump has enough of a lead that he’ll probably win even if the debate really did hurt him, but he’s playing with so many different political matches lately that no one really knows if one of them might catch fire. Will his spat with the Pope alienate some last-minute undecideds? Probably not, but maybe! How about him talking up the ObamaCare mandate on CNN last night? Doubtful, but could be! On top of all this, don’t forget that Newt Gingrich trailed badly in the final polls before the election in SC four years ago and ended up blowing out the field. That win was attributed to his famous debate answer attacking the media shortly before SC went to vote, which just reinforces my point here — you don’t really know how a notably good, or bad, soundbite will play in South Carolina right before people go into the booth.
The other X factor right now is Rubio. Go back to the RCP poll average that I linked above and you’ll find that Cruz hasn’t risen as Trump has slipped. The guy who’s rising is Rubio, who was averaging 14.0 percent the day after the debate last weekend and is now right behind Cruz for second with 17.1 percent of the vote, no doubt thanks in part to Nikki Haley’s endorsement. Remember that buzzy ARG poll last night that showed Rubio surging into second with 20 percent? There are new numbers this morning. He’s still surging:
He’s not going to catch Trump at that rate but he could poison Cruz before the SEC primary if these numbers are anywhere near accurate. One caution about Rubio, though: Jay Cost is right that his surge in the overall RCP poll average is mainly just a function of his numbers in the ARG poll. Of the last seven surveys taken (including Clemson), five have him at 15-16 percent, not 20-22. In all five of those polls, he trails Cruz. That’s the other half of the suspense tomorrow night along with Trump’s performance — is the Rubio surge for real, enough for a shocking second-place finish, or is he looking at a possibly very narrow third-place win over Jeb Bush, a great disappointment after all the hype about Haley this week? The complexion of the race will change wildly depending upon which of those pans out.
Exit question via Jonathan Last: Why aren’t Cruz and Rubio blowing up Trump over his “Bush lied!” comments? Is defending Bush that risky even in a Republican primary? And, bonus question: Will this day pass without either of them dropping a new ad about Trump’s support for the mandate? Lots of South Carolinians are making up their minds today. Better get cracking.