The GOP primary race has essentially come down to four candidates: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ], and Marco Rubio. Of these four, it is increasingly clear that, all his bluster to the contrary, Donald Trump would make the weakest potential foe for Hillary Clinton in the general election.
The recent polling on this matter, of course, isn’t even close. Trump, like the rest of the GOP field, was drastically helped by a recent FoxNews poll that probably ought to be completely discounted by now, but even still his numbers relative to Hillary’s are not especially good.
Cruz has also struggled relative to Clinton; however, his poll numbers have consistently been moving in the right direction on that front:
Carson does better than either, but his numbers have been moving in the wrong direction:
Rubio, meanwhile, as might be expected, performs the best against Clinton, and like Cruz, has been moving consistently in the right direction relative to Clinton:
Now obviously, when measuring a Republican candidate’s expected strength against a Democrat, simply looking at head-to-head poll numbers does not really tell the full story.
We can probably discount the Carson polling data entirely, because his name recognition remains much lower than Clinton’s, and moreover, even though he briefly led the GOP field, he has never garnered one tenth of the attention that Donald Trump has, either in terms of scrutiny of his positions or in terms of his ability to impact the electorate in the age of television and the Internet. Even to many likely GOP primary voters, Carson remains a tabula rasa – he will not be able to continue as one if he is nominated and we would probably expect to see drastic changes as people got acquainted with him.
When it comes to Rubio and Cruz, we can likewise take their head to head numbers versus Clinton with a grain of salt. More than Carson, they are known quantities to people who follow politics obsessively, like the people who read this blog for instance. But still in the minds of general election voters, their perceptions of Cruz and Rubio are still a bit hazy at best. There’s a lot of room for either to either vastly improve relative to Hillary or to flounder epically. I do think that I agree with what the polls are saying right now, which is that Rubio presents a noticeably better chance of winning the general than Cruz would.
However, with respect to Trump, there’s good reason to believe that the polling, even at this early stage, reflects his true standing relative to Hillary. Trump has been overexposed during the course of this primary to an extent that no other political candidate in living memory has. Tons of digital ink has been spilled already at the unprecedented amount of free “advertising” Trump has received from the cable and network news during the course of the campaign, which has been largely responsible for his current lead in the GOP field.
As a consequence, most voters’ opinions – left, right, and middle – are baked in about Trump. That’s essentially why none of the crazy things he says or does – even including mocking a disabled person for their disability – causes him to go up or down in the GOP primary polls. That’s good news for Trump in terms of keeping the national lead until the primaries start to thin the field; however, it’s bad news for him in terms of succeeding in the general.
Donald Trump does not have a plausible (in terms of being plausible to anyone but his current supporters) explanation for how he will raise his standing relative to Hillary in the general. Everyone in America already knows him and has had significant exposure to him. The same can be said of Hillary. There’s no convincing reason why the dynamic will change when it’s only the two of them in this race.
That is not to say that Trump would have no chance of winning; obviously, events on the ground or a major mistake by Hillary could catapult literally any Republican into the lead. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that of the current Republican candidates, Trump’s chances against Hillary are clearly the weakest.