Donald Trump crushes new poll. But there are reasons for caution

Donald Trump is leading with 39 percent of the GOP primary vote. But with primaries about to begin, the dynamics could shift in several important ways. 

Carlos Osorio/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump poses with supporters after a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Monday.

It looks like Donald Trump is going to have a hugely merry Christmas holiday. The Republican establishment and other party players who pale at the prospect of the billionaire winning their nomination? Not so much.

That’s the upshot of the latest big national poll, a CNN/ORC survey that has Trump leading the field with 39 percent of the GOP primary vote. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is second, up a bit at 18 percent.

The Donald celebrated this good news with his usual grace, as he tweeted on Wednesday:

Yes, this is only one poll, but it is not an outlier. Recent surveys from Fox News and ABC News/Washington Post have put Trump at 38 to 39 percent support. Monmouth University even has him breaking the 40 percent barrier, recording a 41 percent lead earlier this month.

A Quinnipiac poll released this week had Trump at only 28 percent, with a slim four percent lead over runner-up Senator Cruz. But now it appears that Quinnipiac may be the outlier. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys lists Trump at 35.1 percent. He’s edging ever closer to a height from which he can see a majority of GOP votes, and thus the nomination.

However – yes, now it’s time for the caveats – the value of national polling declines as actual voting nears. It’s interesting and fun and good for gauging rough relative performance, but nominees are picked state by state, and that’s a dynamic process. The events from one state affect those of the next – momentum and publicity and all that.

The first votes will be cast in early February at the Iowa caucuses, and guess what? That’s a state where Trump is behind. Cruz has a four percentage point lead in Iowa, according to RealClearPolitics’s rolling average of state polls, and he’s rising.

Trump maintains a 16 percentage point lead in New Hampshire, whose primary follows hard on Iowa’s heels. But will Cruz get a big bump in the Granite State if he does win Iowa’s caucuses? That sort of thing has happened before. And Trump’s absolute support in New Hampshire is not that yyuuuge – it’s only 28 percent total, according to RCP. If the establishment anti-Trump vote suddenly coalesces behind one or even two candidates it could essentially take the shine off Trump’s loafers.

Also are Trump’s voters actually going to show up? Much of his support comes from lower-income, less-educated voters. That’s not a demographic that has a high turnout. So far, most polls are of registered voters. As the actual voting approaches, pollsters tighten their screens, relying more on “likely” voters – folks who have voted in past primaries, for instance. That could tighten polling results, making it appear as if Trump is slipping.

We’re not saying that any of this is inevitable. It’s just possible – the sort of thing that often happens once the rough and tumble begins. As (not) Presidents Rudy Giuliani and Howard Dean can attest, early national poll leads can make for a happy holiday, and little else. Cheers!

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