Trump and Cruz vie for lead in polls but avoid attacking each other

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are going to have to face off at some point. If and when it happens, it could be the decisive moment that allows one of them to rise even further or impels the fall of both. 

John Locher/AP
Donald Trump (l.) watches as Ted Cruz speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas.

A new set of state-based polls has good news for both Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and makes the fact that neither man has spent much time attacking the other all the more interesting:

Donald Trump, the national front-runner, keeps his big lead in two of the three early states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, but now Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has moved past Trump into a lead of his own in Iowa.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio remains in double digits in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and Governor Chris Christie has now shown upward movement in New Hampshire, doubling his support there in the last month.

The backdrop to all this is a mood of anxiety – both economic and personal security – pervading the GOP electorate in these early states. Nine in ten in all states feel the country is now a more dangerous and insecure place, including 95 percent of Iowa GOP voters who say that, and nine in ten feel the nation’s economic system is one that hurts them instead of benefits them. Terrorism and national security are now specifically front-and-center on primary voters’ minds: in Iowa, 61 percent say it is their top decision-making criteria for candidates, ahead of the economy; in New Hampshire, 66 percent cite terrorism and security ahead of 28 percent on the economy.

First up is Iowa, where Cruz has been moving up slowly but surely for several weeks now and where the new poll, conducted by CBS and YouGov using the online polling methods I’ve discussed before, has Cruz with 40 percent and Trump in second place at 30 percent. After Trump, there’s a significant drop to get to third place, where Marco Rubio sits with 12 percent, followed by Ben Carson at 6 percent, and every other candidate at 2 percent or worse. These numbers push Cruz (30.2 percent) to a four point lead in the RealClearPolitics average, followed by Trump (26.2 percent), Rubio (12.3 percent) and Carson (10.0 percent), with all of the other candidates currently averaging in the single digits.

In New Hampshire, the new poll shows Trump in a league of his own at 32 percent, followed by Cruz at 14 percent, Rubio at 13 percent, and Chris Christie at 11 percent. After Christie, we have Ohio Gov. John Kasich at 8 percent, Jeb Bush at 6 percent, Ben Carson and Rand Paul both at 5 percent, and Carly Fiorina at 4 percent. None of the other candidates polled above 1 percent. Trump’s strong lead is mirrored in the poll average, where Trump stands at 28.3 percent, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio at 12.0 percent, Chris Christie at 11 percent, and no other candidate averaging in single digits. Additionally, Trump’s lead in the Granite State with no real challenger rising up to meet him, continues a trend that goes all the way back to late July when Trump first passed Jeb Bush to become the front-runner in the Granite State. That’s just under five straight months where Trump has been in the lead in New Hampshire.

Finally, in South Carolina, which has become as important among early primary states for Republicans as New Hampshire in recent decades, Donald Trump (38 percent) has a 15 point lead over Cruz (23 percent), with Marco Rubio trailing in third place at 12 percent, followed by Ben Carson at 9 percent, Jeb Bush at 7 percent, and Rand Paul at 4 percent. No other candidate garners more than 3 percent in this poll of the Palmetto State. As with the other states, the results here are largely mirrored in the poll average, where Trump (33.7 percent) now has a 14.4 point lead over the second place Cruz (19.3 percent) while Marco Rubio sits in third place at 12.3 percent and Ben Carson holds on to a double-digit average at 11.3 percent but clearly seems to be headed down into single digit territory before long. After Carson, Jeb Bush sits at a 7.3 percent average, while everyone else is averaging 3.0 percent or less.

In an ordinary election cycle, this would seem to make it seemingly inevitable that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz will inevitably lock horns at some point before voting actually begins. Many were anticipating that we’d see some of that at the debate last Tuesday, but instead Trump and Cruz both continued to decline to directly attack each other and Cruz instead concentrated his fire on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Those two have continued their battle, which has centered mostly on the issue of immigration and Rubio’s support for an immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013, while Trump has been engaged in a rhetorical back and forth with Jeb Bush of all people, which seems odd mostly because of Bush’s relatively weak position in the polls. There have been plenty of theories for why Trump and Cruz are avoiding each other right now, some more conspiratorial than the other, but it strikes me that this is a battle that can only be delayed for so long. If the field starts to clear and the battle comes down to one between Trump, Cruz, and some establishment-type candidate, which would most likely be either Rubio or Christie at this point, then Cruz and Trump are going to have to face off against one another at some point. If and when it happens, it could be the decisive moment that allows one of them to rise even further, or it could be the political equivalent of a matter/anti-matter explosion in which both candidates are so fatally damaged that it allows another candidate to rise up in their wake.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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