CNN poll: Clinton, Sanders top Trump head-to-head, but not Rubio or Cruz

Caveats galore abound for this new CNN/ORC poll, released on Super Tuesday morning, but let’s tackle the data first. As other polls have shown, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both would beat Donald Trump if the general election was held today instead of fifteen primary contests. They would have a tougher time beating either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, although those results end up in the margin of error:

Both of the remaining Democratic candidates for president easily top Republican front-runner Donald Trump in hypothetical general election match-ups,according to a new CNN/ORC Poll.

But Hillary Clinton, who is well ahead in the Democratic race for the presidency, would likely face a stronger challenge should Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz capture the Republican nomination for president.

In the scenario that appears most likely to emerge from the primary contests, Clinton tops Trump 52% to 44% among registered voters. That result has tilted in Clinton’s favor since the last CNN/ORC Poll on the match-up in January.

But when the former secretary of state faces off with either of the other two top Republicans, things are much tighter and roughly the same as they were in January. Clinton trails against Rubio, with 50% choosing the Florida senator compared to 47% for Clinton, identical to the results in January. Against Cruz, Clinton holds 48% to his 49%, a slight tightening from a 3-point race in January to a 1-point match-up now.

Caveat One: The general election won’t be held today. In fact, national polling at this stage is at best only a general guideline even in the primary contests, most useful for psychological impact on voters’ perspective on rational choices in the remaining primaries. The general election is still several months off, and in between there will be conventions, endorsements, unendorsements, news stories, oppo research, a pending criminal investigation and a pending civil fraud action, and even a World Series. Electability issues exist, of course, but to look at this poll as a definitive look at how a race will unfold in November is only slightly more reliable than rune-casting, as I’ve noted before.

Caveat Two: This poll uses a sample of 920 registered voters, not likely voters — so we’re not even sure they’re voting in primaries, let alone the general election. Some will respond by noting that it’s way too early to run a likely-voter screen on a question about November’s election, to which I’d respond: See Caveat One.

Caveat Three: Take a look at the responses on the issue questions in this poll. Trump leads most of them, and he leads the other Republican candidates on all of them. Most presidential elections are about the economy, and Trump leads Clinton by 13 points and Sanders by 21 on that issue. National security issues are a mixed bag; Trump edges Clinton 33/30 on terrorism, while Clinton leads Trump on foreign policy 37/21, with Sanders a distant third in both cases. On immigration, Trump leads Clinton 31/25 and Sanders by 15 points. It’s difficult to look at that and credit either Rubio (who comes in second among Republicans on all of these issues, including immigration) or Cruz with having a better chance of beating Hillary or Bernie in November, at least with the data in this poll.

Democrats aren’t buying this, either:

But there’s another group of Democrats warning that Trump’s unconventional approach — and the success it’s brought him in the GOP primary — means the rules underlying past elections are out the window this time. They’re concerned that Democratic leaders and strategists may be misreading the currents propelling Trump’s rise, and they’re cautioning against the notion that a Trump nomination would pre-ordain the next Democrat in the White House.

“It’s very possible that he could win. Anything is possible in this race,” said Licy DoCanto, head of The DoCanto Group, a public policy consulting firm.

Trump, DoCanto noted, has already defied the countless predictions from both sides of the aisle that his campaign would fade into the night.

“That’s continuing to puzzle those who stare and history and say, ‘This can’t be possible,’ ” said DoCanto, who served as an aide to former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

My advice: Cast your primary/caucus ballot for the candidate you feel would make the best president, and let the head-to-head question wait for the convention. Consider these polls as mainly an entertaining way to look at the long picture, but with little connection to reality for now.