Donald Trump has been anything but a conventional Republican presidential candidate. He has, to take just one example, lashed out against the three previous GOP nominees, Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush. And the three most recent Republican standard-bearers, especially Romney, have attacked Trump. All the craziness made it seem for a while as if the Republican Party might come apart at the seams, and that might still happen. But nearly a month after Trump vanquished Ted Cruz and John Kasich from the primary race, Republican voters are rallying behind Trump as if he were any other nominee.
In the last four live interview polls that broke down results by partisanship,1 Trump averaged 85 percent support against Hillary Clinton among respondents who identified as Republicans. Clinton won just 7 percent among GOP respondents.2 Trump’s share of the Republican vote at this point in the campaign is right in line with past nominees. Here’s an average of three live interview polls3 conducted right after each Republican nominee since 1980 wrapped up his primary by eliminating his last serious foe:4
|GOP SUPPORT FOR …||1980||1988||1996||2000||2008||2012||2016|
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Republicans fell in line once Trump clinched the nomination. As the country has grown more polarized, voters have been less willing to cross party lines in presidential elections. You can see that growing polarization above: Before 2000, no Republican nominee had more than 81 percent of the Republican vote immediately after wrapping up their primary; since 2000, every Republican nominee exceeded that mark.
Polarization notwithstanding, it’s at least a little amazing how quickly and easily Trump — who has bucked party orthodoxy on a range of issues — consolidated the GOP vote. The fact that Republican voters are treating him as any other nominee may give him a floor on his support, ensuring he doesn’t get blown out by Clinton. Even if Clinton wins most voters in the center of the political spectrum, it’ll be difficult for her to run up the score if Trump is pulling a similar percentage of Republicans as past nominees did. The last time either party’s nominee won the general election by double digits (1984), he pulled a quarter of the opposing party’s voters.
Of course, securing your base is a necessary but not sufficient condition to win elections. President Obama led pretty much wire-to-wire in the 2012 presidential race and ended up beating Romney by 4 percentage points, despite Romney, at this point in that campaign, taking in more of the Republican vote than any nominee since 1980. Obama was able to win four years ago by holding onto 92 percent of Democratic voters. That is, polarization works both ways, keeping Democrats voting for the Democratic nominee and Republicans voting for the Republican nominee.
In national polls right now, Trump is benefiting from Clinton’s inability to hold her own base. Clinton is struggling tremendously with Democratic-leaning independents, who tend to be Bernie Sanders supporters. That has allowed Trump to close the gap with Clinton in the polls, though he still trails in most surveys.
If Trump continues to win most Republicans and Sanders supporters continue to hold out even after Clinton clinches the nomination, Trump has a real shot of winning in November. Otherwise, it will be a tough road for him. But, for now at least, we can put to bed the notion of a strong #NeverTrump movement among Republican voters.
Dhrumil Mehta contributed research.