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Republican Voters Kind Of Hate All Their Choices

If we woke up one day and found that the daytime sky had permanently turned from blue to orange, we’d eventually get used to it. That wouldn’t make it any less strange, however.

So even though the battle between Donald Trump and the Republican “establishment”1 has been a story since the summer, we should still pause now and again to gawk at the spectacle. On Thursday, Mitt Romney, the previous Republican presidential nominee and the closest thing the GOP has to a party elder, denounced Trump in the strongest possible terms. Trump responded by making what sounded to me like a blow job reference.

This is really happening. At least I think.

But as spectacular as the clash between Trump and Republican “party elites” has become, the coverage of it tends to obscure another, perhaps equally important part of the story. Trump does not just divide rank-and-file voters from Republican poo-bahs. He’s also extremely divisive among Republican voters, much more so than a typical front-runner. In exit polls so far, only 49 percent of Republican voters say they would be satisfied with Trump as their nominee — remarkable considering Trump’s lead in votes and delegates. But compounding the GOP’s problems, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would leave only slightly more Republican voters happy.

Sean Trende, at Real Clear Politics, wrote about these satisfaction numbers earlier, so my goal here is not to duplicate his work but to provide some additional context. Specifically, it’s to point out that what we’re seeing among the Republican electorate this year is not remotely normal.

The exit polls have asked Republican voters in seven states — here’s Tennessee, for example — whether they’d be satisfied if each of Cruz, Rubio and Trump won the nomination. Remember, these are actual voters — voters who gave Trump a win in six of the seven states where the exit poll asked this question — and not some hypothetical universe of “likely voters.” On average, just 49 percent of these actual Republican voters said they’d be satisfied with Trump. The numbers for the other two candidates were better, but not by much: 53 percent of voters said they’d be satisfied with Rubio, and 51 percent with Cruz.

2/9/16 New Hampshire 38 41 51
3/1/16 Alabama 49 47 56
Arkansas 57 58 46
Georgia 55 55 53
Tennessee 50 54 53
Texas 68 59 43
Virginia 43 59 44
Average 7 states 51 53 49
Many Republicans would be dissatisfied with Trump, Cruz or Rubio

Source: National Election Poll Exit Polls

You might wonder whether this sort of thing always happens during a nomination campaign. The short answer is that it doesn’t. By comparison, 79 percent of Democrats this year have said they’d be satisfied with Hillary Clinton as their nominee, while 62 percent have said so of Bernie Sanders.

Eight years ago, the battle between Clinton and Barack Obama was much tenser. With a few notable exceptions in Appalachia, however, both Clinton and Obama were widely acceptable to Democrats in 2008. On average in the 35 states where the exit polls asked the question, 69 percent of Democrats said they’d be satisfied with Obama as their nominee, while 71 percent said so of Clinton:

1/26/08 South Carolina 77% 83%
1/29/08 Florida 80 70
2/5/08 Alabama 70 69
Arizona 74 70
Arkansas 83 47
California 76 70
Connecticut 72 73
Delaware 70 69
Georgia 64 79
Illinois 60 78
Massachusetts 78 70
Missouri 67 74
New Jersey 73 66
New Mexico 73 72
New York 78 67
Oklahoma 67 49
Tennessee 76 61
Utah 68 78
2/9/08 Louisiana 63 64
2/12/08 Maryland 69 79
Virginia 64 82
2/19/08 Wisconsin 68 82
3/4/08 Ohio 73 66
Rhode Island 75 63
Texas 70 66
Vermont 70 82
3/11/08 Mississippi 58 69
4/22/08 Pennsylvania 73 64
5/6/08 Indiana 67 66
North Carolina 63 69
5/13/08 West Virginia 74 42
5/20/08 Kentucky 76 43
Oregon 70 79
6/3/08 Montana 67 74
South Dakota 76 69
Average 35 states 71 69
In 2008, most Democrats were happy with both their choices

Source: National Election Poll Exit Polls

How about the Republican race in 2012? The exit polls posed the satisfaction question in only four states, and Romney’s numbers weren’t great. But they were still much better than Trump’s. On average, 63 percent of Republicans said they’d be happy with Romney as their nominee.2

1/10/12 New Hampshire 35% 61% 38%
1/31/12 Florida 54 65 53
3/13/12 Mississippi 66 57 67
4/3/12 Wisconsin 67 60
Average 4 states 52 63 55
Republicans were relatively satisfied with Romney in 2012

Source: National Election Poll Exit Polls

I also looked up these numbers for the 2004 Democratic and the 2008 Republican races, elections that bear some similarity to this year’s Republican race because there was no clear front-runner early on. Although it took a while for John Kerry and John McCain to catch on with voters, they eventually became very popular. In 2004, an average of 79 percent of Democrats said they’d be satisfied with Kerry as their nominee, while 77 percent of Republicans said so of McCain in 2008.

Not only is Trump’s 49 percent satisfaction rating lower than any recent party nominee’s, it’s also lower than almost all the losers’. Rick Santorum in 2012 was more widely acceptable than Trump, for example. The only exception was Ron Paul in 2012, although the exit polls asked about him in only two states.

2004 Dem. Kerry 16 79%
2016 Dem. Clinton 8 79
2008 Rep. McCain 6 77
2008 Dem. Clinton 35 71
2008 Dem. Obama 35 69
2012 Rep. Romney 4 63
2016 Dem. Sanders 8 62
2004 Dem. Edwards 9 57
2012 Rep. Santorum 4 55
2008 Rep. Huckabee 4 54
2016 Rep. Rubio 7 53
2012 Rep. Gingrich 3 52
2016 Rep. Cruz 7 51
2016 Rep. Trump 7 49
2012 Rep. Paul 2 33
No recent precedent for a front-runner as divisive as Trump

Source: National Election Poll Exit Polls

So how is Trump winning? Partly it’s because the field is so divided, as Trende wrote. Campaign reporters perhaps ought to do more to distinguish between a candidate who is winning 34 percent of his party’s vote, as Trump has done so far, and one winning with 60 percent, as Clinton has. Clinton has a much clearer mandate than Trump does. But it’s also partly because Rubio and Cruz leave many Republicans dissatisfied. Maybe if Romney had run himself?

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  1. See here for why we usually use scare quotes around “establishment.”

  2. The table below excludes Ron Paul, whom the exit polls asked about in only two states. His numbers were poor in those states, however: 42 percent of New Hampshire Republicans said they’d be satisfied with Paul as their nominee, while 23 percent said so in Mississippi.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.