Several recent stories, like this one from the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, report that influential Republicans have become increasingly resigned to the prospect of Donald Trump as their nominee. One theme in these stories is that the GOP “donor class” seems to have persuaded itself that Trump might not be such a bad general election candidate.
On that point, the donor class is probably wrong.
It’s hard to say exactly how well (or poorly) Trump might fare as the Republican nominee. Partisanship is strong enough in the U.S. that even some of his most ardent detractors in the GOP would come around to support him were he the Republican candidate. Trump has some cunning political instincts, and might not hesitate to shift back to the center if he won the GOP nomination. A recession or a terror attack later this year could work in his favor.
But Trump would start at a disadvantage: Most Americans just really don’t like the guy.
Contra Rupert Murdoch’s assertion about Trump having crossover appeal, Trump is extraordinarily unpopular with independent voters and Democrats. Gallup polling conducted over the past six weeks found Trump with a -27-percentage-point net favorability rating among independent voters, and a -70-point net rating among Democrats; both marks are easily the worst in the GOP field. (Trump also has less-than-spectacular favorable ratings among his fellow Republicans.)
Favorability ratings can vary quite a bit from pollster to pollster, however, so I went back and collected a broader array of data. Specifically, I took an average of each candidate’s favorability ratings in polls from the Huffington Post Pollster database since Nov. 1.1
We’ve got an unpopular set of presidential candidates this year– Bernie Sanders is the only candidate in either party with a net-positive favorability rating — but Trump is the most unpopular of all. His favorability rating is 33 percent, as compared with an unfavorable rating of 58 percent, for a net rating of -25 percentage points. By comparison Hillary Clinton, whose favorability ratings are notoriously poor, has a 42 percent favorable rating against a 50 percent unfavorable rating, for a net of -8 points. Those are bad numbers, but nowhere near as bad as Trump’s.
This is not just a recent phenomenon; Trump’s favorability ratings have been consistently poor. It’s true that his favorability numbers improved quite a bit among Republicans once he began running for president. But those gains were almost exactly offset by declines among independents and Democrats. In fact, his overall favorability ratings have been just about unchanged since he began running for president in June:
Head-to-head polls of hypothetical general election matchups have almost no predictive power at this stage of the campaign, but for what it’s worth, Trump tends to fare relatively poorly in those too. On average,2 in polls since Nov. 1, Trump trails Clinton by 5 percentage points, while Clinton and Marco Rubio are tied.
You could plausibly argue that Ted Cruz would be a worse nominee than Trump despite having better favorability ratings and faring slightly better in general election head-to-heads.3 There’s reasonably clear evidence that voters tend to punish candidates with “extreme” (far right or far left) ideologies, and by statistical measures Cruz would be the most conservative nominee since (and possibly including) Barry Goldwater in 1964. Trump’s ideology is harder to pin down.
But that Cruz might be a bad nominee doesn’t make Trump a good one. It’s a perplexing that Republican elites have resigned to nominating either Trump or Cruz when nine other candidates are running and no one has voted yet.
Check out the latest polls and forecasts for the 2016 presidential primaries.