While Donald Trump continues to lead in the Republican nomination contest, opponents Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio are playing a swift catch-up game.
According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 34 percent of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents say they’d like to see the real estate mogul win the nomination. But those who “strongly unfavor” Mr. Trump are up 12 points since November, and his favorability has gone down by 17 in that same period.
When compared one-on-one with Senators Cruz and Rubio, Trump falls behind. Nearly seven in 10 survey respondents say they prefer the two senators over the reality TV star if the competition was limited to just two candidates.
In these hypothetical clashes, Trump trails Cruz, 54 percent to 41 percent. With Rubio, it’s a slightly smaller margin but the Florida senator still comes out on top, 51 percent to 45 percent. Meanwhile, with every candidate in the picture, Cruz has 25 percent of support, Rubio has 18 percent, and John Kasich has 13 percent. All three numbers reflect rising momentum since January, especially for the Governor Kasich. In two months, the Ohio governor has gained 11 percentage points.
Trump, on the other hand, has seen a decreasing fanbase since December, when he peaked at 38 percent. Although the two-way matchups show only minimal leads over him, they indicate Trump's limits within the Republican party. His diminishing popularity – not to mention, the crescendo of disapproval from party leaders – points to the possibility of a contested convention in July, if no candidate wins the necessary 1,237 delegates to secure the nomination.
The demographics in which Trump performs most poorly include strong conservatives and evangelical white Protestants. Very conservative Republican-leaning voters prefer Cruz over Trump by 60 percent to 34 percent, and Rubio to Trump by 56 percent to 41 percent. For evangelical white Protestants, the margin of favor against Trump is 64 percent to 31 percent for Cruz and 55 percent to 42 percent for Rubio.
Trump also trails behind Cruz and Rubio among registered voters who prioritize political experience over outsider status. This bloc of voters is likely to disagree with the front-runner on his key positions, such as mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and his proposed Muslim travel ban. Cruz and Rubio also outperform Trump among women – more than six in 10 of whom prefer them.
And among the majority of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who don’t want Trump to be the Republican candidate, 63 percent support the option of having a contested convention if Trump fails to capture the majority of primary votes.
GOP elites have already conjectured, perhaps optimistically, the scenario in which a contested convention will be necessary: Marco Rubio takes Florida, John Kasich wins Ohio, Ted Cruz picks up victories in the Midwest, and Trump fumbles with the rest of the country, all of which culminates in him not quite reaching the magic number of 1,237.
The Republican Governors Association and other conservative policy experts have been brainstorming tactics to take down Trump.
“After South Carolina, I got questions — ‘Can he be stopped? You’re running a fool’s errand,’ ” David McIntosh, president of the anti-Trump "Club for Growth," told the Post. “My answer was: ‘It worked [in Iowa], and even more importantly, it has to be done.’ ”
“We can’t just cede this ground. ”