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Two Good Reasons Not To Take The Donald Trump ‘Surge’ Seriously

The magnificent Donald Trump has soared, bald-eagle-like, to the top of Republican presidential primary polls. He’s now in second place, behind only Jeb Bush, with what The Donald might call “the highest 13 percent ever recorded in human history” in polls conducted since he announced his bid for the presidency last month. So how seriously should we take the Trump “surge”?

The take-Trump-seriously logic goes something like this: There’s a lot of anger in the far right of the Republican Party, and The Donald is successfully tapping into it. He’s articulating positions that appeal to the far right on immigration, education and President Obama’s place of birth. The magnificent Trump, himself, has acknowledged that the tea party “loves me.” (Then again, what group does Trump believe doesn’t love him — besides the establishment?)

But the polling points to another, less sexy story: First, Republican voters don’t rate Trump as all that conservative, and second, he’s actually polling about equally well among all sections of the GOP. In Trump speak, this means he is loved universally; in reality, the broad, shallow nature of Trump’s support suggests it’s due mostly to near-universal name recognition, thanks in part to being in the news more often than the news anchors.

YouGov has polled voters on how conservative they thought the Republican candidates were four times in June. Trump was included in three of these polls, in which voters placed the candidates on a 0 (most liberal) to 100 (most conservative) scale. Trump scored an average of 63.

George Pataki 50
John Kasich 54
Chris Christie 55
Jeb Bush 60
Lindsey Graham 61
Carly Fiorina 62
Donald Trump 63
Rand Paul 63
Marco Rubio 64
Ben Carson 65
Bobby Jindal 67
Rick Perry 69
Scott Walker 70
Rick Santorum 70
Mike Huckabee 71
Ted Cruz 72

This may disappoint Trump, but his score was not the highest number ever produced in this poll. In fact, it was … average. Even in the two weeks of polling after he declared, he scored just a 62 among Republicans specifically. That’s far behind the average self-identified Republican voter’s score of 70. That is, Republicans see Trump as less conservative than they see themselves. He’s no Scott Walker.

The initial horse-race polling since Trump shook up the race illustrates this point well. I broke out the crosstabs of four recent live interview polls (conducted by CNN/ORC, Fox News, Monmouth University and Suffolk University). This polling is preliminary, and Trump has a way of shifting polling, but at the moment, Trump doesn’t have a base of support within the GOP.


Among self-identified conservatives (this includes “somewhat conservative” and “very conservative” Republicans), Trump earns 13 percent, the same level of support he’s garnering overall. In the two polls that broke down the responses among moderate and liberal Republicans, The Donald clocks in at 15 percent. Again, that’s the same percentage he had overall in an average of the two polls that included a moderate and liberal crosstab.

But what about the most conservative voters — the voters who you would have thought would be cheering the loudest as Trump rode down that escalator with the grace and poise of a modern-day Humphrey Bogart? In the two polls with a “tea party” and “very conservative” crosstab, Trump has averaged 13 percent and 19 percent, respectively. In the same polls with these crosstabs available, Trump took 12 percent and 15 percent of the overall vote, respectively. Those differences are not statistically significant.1

We have just two polls for some of these subgroups, but the state polls show the same thing. Public Policy Polling surveys in Kentucky, Michigan and North Carolina show Trump earns about the same support with moderates and liberals (16 percent) and very conservative voters (15 percent) as he does overall in these three states (14 percent). Quinnipiac University actually found Trump doing best in Iowa with moderates and liberals (15 percent) and worst with very conservative voters (7 percent).

It’s difficult to assign cause and effect to polling. We can’t know for sure why Trump is doing relatively well in the primary polls (it’s worth remembering: Although good enough for second place in an overstuffed Republican primary field, 13 percent is still just 13 percent). But the fact that Trump’s support is mostly flat across the party suggests he has not raced to the top because of his very conservative positions or fire-breathing rhetoric. Something is appealing to all parts of the GOP, and that something is likely the fact that Trump has been in the news a lot lately. We’ll see how he does when the novelty wears off.


  1. Compare Trump and his lack of a base to Bush, whose base is evident in these surveys. Although Bush is averaging 15 percent in the polls, he’s at 24 percent with moderates and liberals. Tea party supporters give him just 7 percent of the vote, on average.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.