A funny thing is happening on the way to Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. The brash billionaire appears to be losing a bit of steam.
Mr. Trump still leads the field, but at 34 percent, down three points since January in the latest Washington Post/ABC News national poll of Republican and Republican-leaning voters. His three remaining rivals all gained ground, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz his closest competitor, at 25 percent.
The poll also shows a Republican electorate deeply divided over Trump. Fewer than half of GOP voters see him as honest and trustworthy, understanding their problems, or having the right experience and personality to be president.
“Donald Trump’s facing a wall within his party, with Republicans who don’t currently support him far more apt to prefer Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio in a two-way race – or even to favor a contested convention to block Trump’s nomination,” writes ABC News pollster Gary Langer.
The next test of GOP voter sentiment comes Tuesday, with primaries in Michigan, Mississippi, and Idaho, and caucuses in Hawaii. But next Tuesday is far more pivotal: Five states will vote, most important among them Florida and Ohio – the first states in which the winner takes all the delegates at stake. Both Senator Rubio of Florida and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio are banking on victories in their home states, and if they fail, will face intense pressure to drop out.
Trump's 34 percent problem
But Trump is also under pressure to show that he can rise above the mid-30s on a consistent basis, both in primaries and nationally, and unite the Republican Party. (One recent national poll, by CNN/ORC, showed Trump at 49 percent, but that appears to be an outlier.) In the primaries and caucuses to date, Trump’s percentages have ranged from the 20s to the 40s, averaging out to 34 percent – exactly his national total in the ABC/Post poll.
Another sign that Trump may have peaked came in his performance on Super Saturday, the March 5 contests in which he underperformed his poll numbers. Trump won two contests and lost two, but he gained fewer delegates than Senator Cruz, tightening the overall race to reach the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination. Trump has 384 to Cruz’s 300. Rubio has 151, and Governor Kasich has 37.
For now, 34 percent appears to be both Trump’s floor and his ceiling, representing the third of the electorate that is eager to see an outsider sweep into the White House and shake up a gridlocked capital. But Republicans who don’t like him seem strongly resistant.
Among GOP voters who don’t currently support Trump, a large majority – 63 percent to 30 percent – say that if he lacks a majority of delegates going into the Republican National Convention in July, they want the convention to pick someone else, according to the ABC/Post poll. Non-Trump voters feel that way even if Trump goes into the convention with the most delegates, but short of a majority.
Why has Trump apparently hit a plateau? Some say the #NeverTrump movement is working. It wasn’t until the Feb. 25 debate that Cruz and Rubio went on the attack against Trump. Last Thursday was another big day for attacking Trump – the speech by Mitt Romney, followed by another debate full of attacks, and Trump’s infamously crude comment about his manhood.
“Meanwhile, the #NeverTrump movement has been gaining air cover,” writes Washington Post conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin. She cites anti-Trump ads by various super-political action committees, including one that supports Rubio. And she points to a mainstream media that have woken up and begun to investigate Trump.
“The coverage has gone from reverential or placid to negative, as the image of Trump as the guy out to stiff the working man and woman emerges,” Ms. Rubin writes.
Divide and conquer
Still, Trump’s numbers haven’t shifted so much as to suggest a big impact by increasingly vocal attacks. More important, his opponents are picking up ground against him – but with three of them still in the race, Trump can divide and conquer.
Since January, Cruz is up four points nationally, now at 25 percent, according to ABC News/Washington Post. Rubio is up seven points, now at 18 percent, and Kasich is up 11 points, now at 13 percent.
In hypothetical matchups, the poll found GOP voters supported Cruz over Trump, 54 percent to 41 percent, and Rubio over Trump, 51 percent to 45 percent. Kasich was not tested.
Trump has called on Rubio to drop out, but it’s Cruz who looks to gain more by vanquishing Rubio. And the well-organized Texas senator has swept into Florida in an apparent effort to do that. Cruz is polling well behind here, in third place, but recently opened 10 field offices. Cruz’s goal, apparently, is not to win but to defeat Rubio. The risk is that he is helping Trump – and if Trump wins Florida, he wins all 99 delegates at stake.
A new Monmouth Poll of likely Florida Republican voters shows Trump on top with 38 percent, followed by Rubio with 30 percent, then Cruz at 17 percent.
Rubio may get a boost in Florida from his blowout victory in the Puerto Rico primary on Sunday. But even if Rubio loses here next Tuesday, there’s no guarantee he quits the race. Rubio’s gambit has been to force the nomination race to a contested convention, and present himself as the consensus pick of establishment Republicans.
“I think he’ll stay in no matter what,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “They want to hold Trump down. They want to take it to a contested convention. That’s their only hope.”
Kasich has the same hope. And even though he has yet to win a contest, he is banking on winning the Ohio primary next Tuesday. Polls show Trump with a slim lead over Kasich there. In addition, many of the Midwest states have yet to vote, and Kasich hopes to pick up delegates in what he considers friendly turf. Michigan, voting today, will test that theory.