The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal Presidential Poll conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff, fellow colleague and Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his firm Hart Research Associates just days prior to the South Carolina Primary revealed a painful, inconvenient truth behind Donald Trump’s madness of tapping into the unprecedented public resentment for Beltway Politics.
The poll confirms that Sen. Ted Cruz is now the first choice for 28 percent of Republican primary voters, while Trump received 26 percent, followed by Marco Rubio at 17, Gov. John Kasich at 11 percent, Dr. Ben Carson at 10 percent and Jeb Bush, who suspended his campaign, with just 4 percent.
As McInturff put it, it is a potential watershed moment in the Republican presidential primaries, a signal that Trump’s drop could signal being “right on top of a shift in the campaign.”
“When you see a number this different, it means you might be right on top of a shift in the campaign. What you don’t know yet is if the change is going to take place or if it is a momentary ‘pause’ before the numbers snap back into place. So, one poll post-Saturday debate can only reflect there may have been a ‘pause’ as Republican voters take another look at Trump. This happened earlier this summer and he bounced back stronger. We will have to wait this time and see what voters decide.”
In addition to Trump’s decline in the GOP presidential primary race, (at least last night’s South Carolina primary, Feb 20th), the new NBC/WSJ poll shows his nine-point drop among likely GOP primary voters who can see themselves supporting the bombastic real-estate mogul — a real decline from 65 percent in January to 56 percent on February 16 when the polling survey was concluded. Currently, Sen. Marco Rubio holds a 70 percent of voters ready to vote for him versus 65 percent for Sen. Cruz (65 percent), as well as Dr. Ben Carson (62 percent), Trump (56 percent), Gov. Kasich (49 percent) and Mr. Bush (46 percent).
Yet this tells only part of the story behind the ambiguity of Mr. Trump’s successes as he continues steering hard left while the overwhelming majority of the party veers right.
Full Polling Data and Methodology from Hart Associates/Public Opinion Strategies
NBC News provides the full study conducted by Hart Research Associates/Public Opinion Strategies polling firm. With Trump now trailing in the national poll for the first time since last August, the picture grows bleaker as voters take a second look to determine who they would consider voting as a second alternative.
In each of the “Recalculated Three-Way Ballots Based on Second Vote Preference,” Ted Cruz holds a lead as the next candidate voters would consider following their current choice. For Trump, he is no closer than two percentage points behind Cruz in Scenario #1.
More stunning — and for the Trump campaign, foreboding — is if Trump were to be matched in a two candidate race against only Sens. Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, he would lose to both decisively.
Among those polled, when asked what qualities they most desire in their choice for a presidential candidate, the following details paint the most intriguing portrait of all — and one which Trump appears to be losing ground rapidly.
NBC News also confirms that this particular poll was conducted after other surveys — both nationally and in South Carolina, the site of Saturday’s next Republican contest — displayed Mr. Trump with a commanding lead in both South Carolina and nationally, while others were not. Trump’s decline in the new NBC/WSJ Poll is characterized by his loss in “very conservative” Republican voters from January’s sample. Thus, if the current poll is re-weighted to reflect the ideological composition from the January polling data, the GOP race numbers still paint a grim picture for him:
Trump 26 percent
Cruz 25 percent
Rubio 18 percent
Kasich 13 percent
Thus, Trump holds a precarious one point lead — still down, however, significantly from January.
These findings are not merely consistent with those from Sen. Cruz’s victory in Iowa, they also reflect similar data in polling studies conducted by Gallup. In fact, not only did Cruz lead among “Very Conservative” and “Conservative” voters last month, he was even third among the “Moderate/Liberal” demographics, suggesting he attracts a significant number of Reagan Democrats. Additionally, just two days following the Iowa Caucuses, Mr. Trump’s lead shrunk to +3 points, or a 24 percent to 21 percentage edge over both Sens. Cruz and Rubio according to Public Policy Polling — a -9% decline in Trump’s favorability from its prior national poll conducted before Christmas.
Another NBC News Poll Supports the Narrative Behind Sen. Cruz’ Second Choice Supporters
While Mr. Trump remains the clear GOP primary front-runner in the aftermath of his second consecutive primary victory in South Carolina, the big question is whether this changes now that Jeb Bush suspended his campaign, with Gov. Kasich and Dr. Carson inevitably to follow.
The most recent NBC News|SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking poll conducted the week of February 8-14 online with sample size of 13,139 adults — including 11,417 who say they are registered to vote — revealed both Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to be in the best positions to gain supporters if and when voters decide to switch. Sen. Cruz, as with the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted near the same time, is the second choice with 18 percent of registered Republicans. Sen. Rubio is a close second at 17 percent.
Mr. Trump, despite leading the latest national NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll at 38 percent, only received 12 percent of second-choice votes. These numbers suggest as more candidates suspend their campaigns, both Sens. Cruz and Rubio will continue acquiring relative gains on Mr. Trump.
Jeb Bush supporters who numbered around 4 percent nationally prior to his campaign’s suspension, would disproportionately move into the Rubio camp, with 19 percent selecting the Florida senator as their second choice, followed by Gov. Kasich with 16 percent. This would fulfill the narrative mobilize that the establishment vote will likely remain among its stable. For Sen. Rubio however, a plurality of Bush supporters are not certain who they would select as a second choice, which begs the question how much this might open doors to candidates such as Sen. Cruz in light of hostilities between both candidates and today’s revelation Sen. Rubio’s campaign placed calls to voters announcing Mr. Bush would suspend his campaign during polling hours in South Carolina.
Gov. Kasich’s supporters will trend along this similar pattern that would overwhelmingly back Sen. Rubio whenever the Ohio governor finally suspends his campaign with an estimated 24 percent.
However, should Sen. Rubio suddenly suspend his campaign, Sen. Cruz would easily benefit the most (31 percent of Rubio supporters list the junior senator from Texas as their second choice), followed by Trump at a distant 17 percent.
While Dr. Carson’s base largely mirrors Sen. Cruz’s, the retired brain surgeon’s anger and bitter resentment remains red hot over the controversy surrounding the Iowa Caucuses. Thus it is no surprise that while Sen. Cruz will be the biggest beneficiary whenever Dr. Carson finally decides to suspend his campaign, his advantage over Mr. Trump — 24 percent to 22 percent — is comparatively thin.
Among second choices for both Gov. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina supporters who are no longer in the race, a plurality of these voters (27 percent) will move to Sen. Rubio, while the rest will diffuse evenly between Bush, Kasich, Trump and Cruz.
These voters, however, are comparatively marginalized, as the comprised just 3 percent of registered Republicans.
What Happens Once Sens. Cruz or Rubio Suspend Their Campaign(s)?
The question as to which of the two remaining United States Senators will rally the party behind it to defeat Donald Trump is best answered through the Jeopardy! method: Which candidate’s supporters will fall in line most with Mr. Trump? Which would fall in line the least?
That answer, emphatically, is Sen. Ted Cruz, who would easily benefit most from either Rubio or Trump exiting the race as he receives the plurality of second choice support remaining from both candidate’s supporters.
If Cruz was to leave the race, Rubio would benefit the most. The reason is Sen. Cruz is not only opposed to amnesty for illegal aliens, he actually is less ambiguous given Mr. Trump in 2013 openly endorsed such a policy once the borders are secured.
In spite of the rising hostility between both Sen. Cruz and Donald Trump, nearly 26 percent of Cruz supporters would still support Trump if Cruz dropped out. For Sen. Cruz, he stands to gain as much support from the Trump campaign as both Sen. Rubio and Dr. Carson who, when added together (14 percent each), total only 28 percent — just four percentage points below what Sen. Cruz stands to receive.
While pundits following the results from South Carolina suggested Sen. Cruz’s campaign appears poised to go into decline, the data emanating from the second choices of candidates who will exit may tell an entirely different tale. While Donald Trump remains the clear statistical frontrunner, it is Sen. Cruz in terms of second choice gains who stands to benefit most.