A cluster of Republican candidates strategizing to win the moderate "lane" in the primary in pursuit of a one-on-one showdown with Donald Trump for the nomination may be in for a rude awakening.
Trump, according to a flurry of early-state and national polls, is the overwhelming favorite of self-identified moderate and liberal Republican voters. Among more conservative voters, he often trails his chief rival for the nomination, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.
"We always thought Trump and Cruz were in the same lane, but maybe they're not," said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and polling analyst for Bloomberg Politics. Instead, he said, there may be "more lanes on the conservative highway."
In Iowa, where Trump and Cruz are locked in a close fight, moderate and liberal Republicans are powering the New York businessman's huge support.
In a Public Policy Polling survey of Iowa released Thursday, Trump led among Republicans who self-identify as moderate (32 percent to 17 percent for second-place U.S. Senator Marco Rubio) and "somewhat conservative" (34 percent to 17 percent each for Cruz and Rubio). Cruz led Trump 38 to 24 percent among "very conservative" voters. (Overall, Trump led Cruz 31 to 23 percent.)
A Quinnipiac survey this week found Trump dominant among "moderate" or "liberal" voters. He received with 37 percent, with Rubio in second place with 19 percent. Meanwhile, Cruz led Trump 49 to 29 percent among "very conservative" voters, and 50 to 34 percent among Tea Party voters. (Trump led 31 to 29 percent overall.)
An Iowa poll this week by Monmouth found Trump leading the pack among “moderate” voters (29 percent to 21 percent for second-place Rubio) and among “somewhat conservative” (34 to 16 percent for second-place Cruz). Cruz led Trump 36 to 27 percent among “very conservative” voters. (Trump led Cruz 30 to 23 percent overall.)
In New Hampshire, a bastion for more moderate Republicans, Trump is dominating the field in polls—and winning among moderates.
A recent survey there by Public Policy Polling found Trump leading the pack with 26 percent among moderate Republicans, with Governor John Kasich and Jeb Bush tied for second place with 15 percent in that sub-group.
A CBS/YouGov poll conducted last week found him atop the field by 5 points among moderates (and enjoying even larger leads among conservatives). The same poll in December also found him leading the GOP field among Granite State moderates.
Coast to Coast
National surveys, where Trump consistently leads, tell a similar story.
A CNN poll from late December found Trump blowing out the competition among moderate Republicans with 41 percent. Rubio was second with 11 percent with the same category; all other candidates were in single digits.
In addition, moderates overwhelmingly trusted Trump most to handle the economy (53 percent) and illegal immigration (48 percent).
A Quinnipiac poll in December found Trump losing to Cruz among “very conservative” voters (38-27 percent) but leading him among “somewhat conservative” (28 to 20 percent) and “moderate to liberal” (28 to 15 percent) Republicans.
Another national survey in December by Public Policy Polling found high favorable ratings for Trump across GOP ideological groups including those who identified as “very liberal” (59 to 41 percent), "somewhat liberal" (72 to 21 percent) and "moderate" (48 to 38 percent).
Trump led the field by 25 points among moderate Republicans, but trailed Cruz by 6 points among very conservative Republicans.
The statistics are problematic for candidates like Rubio, Bush, Kasich, and Governor Chris Christie, who are aggressively battling each other for center-right voters, and aiming less fire at Trump. The theory is if they clear that "lane," moderate Republicans in delegate-rich blue and purple states will carry them to victory.
It's unclear what accounts for Trump's success among moderates. In recent interviews he has argued that he would get things done as president. He recently told CNN that Cruz is "a nasty guy who can’t get along with anybody," adding "Look, at a certain point you gotta make deals." Cruz, meanwhile, stresses that he would stand on principle.
Ideologically, Trump has tacked hard-right on immigration, but taken some comparably liberal views on issues where the Republican base leans left of the party establishment, including candidates like Rubio and Bush. The billionaire attacks the campaign finance system and says politicians are corrupted by big donors; he's promised not to cut Social Security or Medicare; and he rails against free trade deals.
"He has expanded the Republican primary electorate to folks who are populist and may have conservative views on some things like immigration," Goldstein said, "but are very much not your bedrock core evangelical tea party Republican."