There’s no arguing whether Donald Trump, who came in first in New Hampshire and a close second in Iowa, has strong support from a segment of the Republican voters. But he’s going to have a hard time reaching out to voters that don’t already support him.
Yes, he currently has the most pledged delegates, and yes, he’s currently leading the Republican national polls. But there is a secret that pollsters and political reports (both of whom love to drum up interest in their profession) won’t tell you. Just about everyone who is willing to support Donald Trump already does.
There is a certain percentage of the population with whom Trump’s message resonates. Those people decided that they were going to vote for Trump months ago, before any vetting of the candidate or his positions took place. That is why Trump shot up from 6.5% to 24.3% in July and August, and why he reached 30.5% in August, when we were still getting introduced to the candidates.
Since peaking in August, Trump has seen his support waver around the 25-35% mark ever since, as voters weigh other options and the alternatives winnow down. Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum dropped out of the race in the last few weeks, and Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie dropped out after poor showings in New Hampshire.
Today, however, the national polls are as tight as they’ve been in months, with Trump polling at only 29.5% while Cruz is at 21% and Rubio is at 17.8%. Rubio’s bump might be a blip thanks to his horrendous performance in New Hampshire (both in the debate and at the polls) but nonetheless the story remains the same — Trump is hitting his ceiling.
Historically, polling around 30% is no guarantee of future success. Rudy Guiliani was at 30% for five months before falling off the pace. The same goes for Pat Buchanan in 2000, who won the Alaska and Louisiana caucuses before finishing a close second in Iowa and then winning New Hampshire with 27% of the vote.
Anyone Who Isn’t Voting For Trump Already, Doesn’t Want To (But They Will)
Here’s the big story out of New Hampshire that nobody is talking about. Exit pollers asked the following question of voters: “would you be satisfied if ___ won the nomination?” and reported answers for Cruz, Rubio, and Trump. Here is how the answers broke down:
- Cruz: 38% yes, 59% no
- Rubio: 41% yes, 57% no
- Trump: 51% yes, 46% no
Although at first blush this looks like an advantage for Trump, it isn’t. Not only is that a remarkably low figure for a state which was specifically engineered for a Trump win (discussed below), the number of “yes” votes barely exceeds the number of people who actually voted for Trump.
Trump won 35.3% of the vote. This means that only 15.7% of the overall electorate in New Hampshire identify as voters who would be “satisfied” with Trump but who voted for someone else. Contrast that with Cruz, who captured 27% of those who did not vote for him, and Rubio, who captured 31% of those who did not vote for him.
Trump voters were split about 45/55 when it came to Cruz and 40/60 when it came to Rubio, but take a look at voters responses to Trump:
Even 3% who voted for Trump said they would be dissatisfied if he won the nomination. I’m not sure why that is, but it happened (and it was less than 0.5% for Cruz and Rubio).
Just about everyone who would be “satisfied” with a Trump nomination is already voting for him, while potential supporters of Cruz, Rubio, and Jeb Bush are splitting their votes. This idea isn’t new — people have been awaiting an establishment candidate to emerge for a while — but this is solid data proving that hypothesis.
Trump has a strong, active, fervent base of supporters. But he’s going to have a very hard time breaking through his current ceiling.
Exit Polls Show Strong But Specific Support for Trump
None of the easy demographic splits (gender, race and age) help to understand where the strength of the Trump support lies. Indeed, Trump has fairly even support among men and women and among all the different age brackets (and of course, there have not been enough non-white voters to draw any conclusions yet).
However, there are indicators to be found in the exit polls about the depth and breadth of Trump’s support:
Courtesy: New York Times (click for slideshow)
Donald Trump had notable failures with three groups in Iowa, each of which were the largest group in their categories: 1) voters who lean conservative, 2) voters who decided any time within the last month, and 3) votes who wanted a candidate to share their values. Trump was roundly beaten in all of these categories.
His support in the Republican party in Iowa was primarily those voters who decided early, self-define as moderate, and are looking for a straight-talker. As for those last two characteristics, that’s exactly what a New Hampshire voter looks like.
The results coming out of the New Hampshire primary are not identical, but they draw on similar themes. Even though Trump won just about every category, his margins of victory showed more strength in some areas than others, especially when compared to his strength overall.
Courtesy: New York Times (click for slideshow)
“Tells it like it is” was ranked first by 24% of New Hampshire voters, compared to only 14% of Iowans, while 27% of New Hampshire voters identified themselves as moderates, compared to only 14% of Iowans. New Hampshire was a state perfectly engineered for a Trump victory. Among “very conservative” New Hampshirites, he barely beat Cruz, while among “moderates” he was just a hair ahead of Kasich.
Notably, Trump did not do well among voters who were looking for a candidate who “shares their values”, coming in third and stuck in a pack with Christie and Bush, or with voters who decided more recently. A whopping 58% of voters who made up their minds over a month ago went to Trump, while those who had decided in the last week were grouped loosely between Trump and Kasich.
Trump Might Have Won New Hampshire, but South Carolina is a Completely Different State
The most recent polls indicate that Trump is winning in South Carolina, but in reality, there has been very little polling there in the New Year. Only four polls have been reported in South Carolina since January 1st (compared to over 30 in New Hampshire), and not one of them since January 23rd. South Carolina is still a mystery.
Once again, Trump has made no progress since initially bursting onto the scene in August:
While Iowa and New Hampshire are different from one another, they have much more in common with each other than they do with South Carolina. In fact, New Hampshire and South Carolina are just about polar opposites. South Carolina is 28% black and is one of the most religious states in the most religious region in the country. New Hampshire is 93.9% white and one of the least religious states in the country. Voters in New Hampshire were also more in favor of Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims than Republicans in America overall.
How might this all affect the Trump campaign? Well, for one thing, Donald Trump is viewed as by far the least religious Presidential candidate.
This hurts, because Pew Research has shown that being an atheist is actually worse for your Presidential aspirations than being a Muslim. A whopping 51% of people say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who was an atheist, compared to 42% who say that about a potential Muslim candidate.
In an area that is more religious, more ethically diverse, and more Conservative, Trump will face his toughest challenge yet.
Despite the Above, the Clock is Ticking for the Other Candidates
One of the most remarkable things about this campaign has been how little actual vetting there has been of the Republican candidates relative to the amount of coverage they have received. Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight recently had the following observation on Thursday:
“I think the muddle exists for three main reasons: 1) As Clare said, Rubio blew a big opportunity; 2) Bush’s super PAC is too big to fail; and 3) the Republican Party and the national media did not do a good job of vetting the GOP candidates because of the singular focus on Donald Trump.”
South Carolina is going to be the turning point in this campaign, as not much time remains before Super Tuesday and the big primaries in early March. The alternative candidate — whoever that is — will need to start collecting votes sooner rather than later before a Trump nomination becomes so inevitable that it begins to crack through the ideological and demographic barriers listed above.
This isn’t simply a case of an outsider versus the establishment candidates. A large portion of the Republican electorate simply won’t vote for a candidate like Trump.
No help is on the way for Trump in the near future, as it appears he might only be able to capture votes from the nominal Fiorina and Carson campaigns. Nonetheless the clock is ticking. But if the unexpected happens, and Trump gets tripped up, the reasons identified in this article will be part of the reason why.
Note: After this post was written, a new poll was released by the Augusta Chronicle which confirmed much of what was written above. Trump remains in the lead at 36%, but his polling average has dropped slightly while Rubio, Bush and Kasich have all gained votes. Voters who left Huckabee, Christie, Fiorina and Santorum (previously around 10% in total) have not gone to Trump.