Super Tuesday poll: Sanders, Clinton top Trump in Nov. A game-changer?

A new poll shows Sanders outperforming Clinton against all three likely GOP candidates in general election match-ups. How will that affect his 'electability' calculus on Super Tuesday?

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in Minneapolis, Minn, Feb. 29.

As voters in 12 states turn out to vote in the Super Tuesday contests, a new poll shows that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders easily top Republican front-runner Donald Trump in hypothetical general election match-ups.

Former Secretary of State Clinton handily defeats Mr. Trump 52 percent to 44 percent among registered voters, while Sen. Sanders wins over Trump by a larger margin: 55 percent to 43 percent, according to a new CNN/ORC Poll released Tuesday.

Clinton would have a tougher time against Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz: 47 percent to Senator Rubio's 50 percent and 48 percent to Senator Cruz's 49 percent.

Sanders defeats both Republicans by wide margins: 57 percent to 40 percent against Cruz and 53 percent to 45 percent against Rubio.

Political observers are already speculating how the new poll could change the political calculus of the race, including whether it will change voters' minds in Tuesday's all-important cluster of primaries: Will the poll give Sanders the electability boost he needs? Is it a bane or a boon for Trump?

Joshua Weikert, assistant professor of political science at Albright College in Reading, Penn., cautions against reading too much into it.

"Polls like this should be taken with a big grain of salt, for a number of reasons," says Professor Weikert in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

"General election runoff polling done this early isn't capturing the impacts of direct candidate competition," says Weikert. "Then there's the impact of bipartisan debates, nominating conventions and the like – and research suggests that even if voters know those things are coming, they still don't include them in their evaluations before they happen."

He calls the CNN poll "interesting, but not instructive." 

Still, the poll does offer useful insights for several candidates, especially Trump. While his loss to both Clinton and Sanders in a hypothetical general election match-up may seem like bad news for the billionaire businessman, the numbers offer him a silver lining: Conventional wisdom suggests Trump's support tops out at 23 to 30 percent among GOP voters, but the CNN poll shows Trump with 44 percent support against Clinton, which suggests his base has room to grow.

How might he grow his base? The poll suggests that the economy remains voters' top concern, with 47 percent calling it most important as they decide how to vote for president, along with 14 percent citing terrorism, and 8 percent illegal immigration.

These are all areas of relative strength for Trump, who might continue to leverage his appeal on these issues. He leads Clinton by 13 points and Sanders by 21 on the economy, leads Clinton by 6 points and Sanders by 15 on immigration, and edges Clinton by 3 points on terrorism. 

In fact, Trump is is the most trusted for 15 percent of Democratic-leaning voters on terrorism, 14 percent on the economy, and 13 percent on immigration, according to the poll.

Considering his strength on such a wide range of issues, why does Trump perform more poorly than his GOP rivals? His divisive rhetoric may actually drive voters to turn out to vote against him.

The poll also offers a boost to Sanders, whom Clinton has tried to paint as un-electable but who rated higher than the former secretary of State in hypothetical general election match-ups against all three GOP rivals.

"I think someone that is considering supporting Sanders, but remains on the fence, may be concerned about his electability," says Nick Clark, assistant professor of political science at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Penn. "For such individuals, the wider lead that he has over most of the possible Republican rivals in a national poll may make a difference."

Like Weikert, Professor Clark cautions against reading too much into the findings.

"Sanders has not been as thoroughly vetted by the media or the public," he says. "Once give the same level of scrutiny [as Clinton], Sanders’ numbers may start to fall.... What's more, I do not know if there are many people left who are on the fence over Sanders because of electability."

Whatever insights the poll reveals, "ultimately, I do not think these polls will make a difference in the race," says Clark. "You have to be very cautious about the reliability of a general election poll this early in the cycle."

Or, as Hot Air's Ed Morrissey puts it, "The general election won't be held today.... Consider these polls as mainly an entertaining way to look at the long picture, but with little connection to reality for now."  

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