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The state of the Republican primary
Who won and who lost in the post-debate polling?
We’re more than a week past the first Republican debate. That means that we can take a look at the polling and see how the mayhem in Milwaukee shook things up. The short answer is that the debate didn’t do much to change the needle.
For polling trends, I usually look beyond the individual polls to FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics, two sites that consolidate and average a variety of polling. Looking at polling averages weeds out outlier polls and allows users to step back and take in a wider view of the forest rather than focusing on each individual tree.
The big picture is that Donald Trump still owns the race. On August 23, the two sites had Trump at 52.1 and 55.4 percent respectively. Today, he stands at 50.3 and 53.6 percent. No one else comes close.
Even with the indictments, his no-show at the debate, and loads of negative press, Trump still has a commanding lead over the Republican field. His bad week may have cost him about two points, which is meaningless at this stage.
The next biggest story is that the debate did not save Ron DeSantis. FiveThirtyEight’s average puts DeSantis at 14.8 percent which is on par with his position going into the debate. Real Clear Politics gives him a marginal decline from 14.8 to 13.5 percent, which fits with the broader picture of DeSantis’s fall from a high of about 31 percent last winter. DeSantis continues to run a distant second but may give up that spot soon.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the mini-Trump, holds third place. Ramaswamy began to surge in mid-August before the debate but may have peaked. He hovered just below 10 percent in the FiveThirtyEight average but only reached about seven percent on Real Clear Politics. Many Republicans lauded Ramaswamy’s debate performance, but he has failed to make a case as to why Republican voters should pick him over Trump, who is of course still in the race.
Interestingly, a fellow church member who forwards me a lot of Trump cheerleading stuff had started sending me pro-Ramaswamy links before the debate. Since then, it has shifted to “Do you trust Vivek? I did until people started pointing things out.” The comments are particularly interesting. I think that MAGA sees Vivek as a threat to Trump so watch for the backlash.
Haley and Pence posted gains in the polling averages since the debate. Haley showed a sharp increase that averages about three points. She ended with a 5.6 from FiveThirtyEight and 4.9 from Real Clear Politics.
Pence’s gain was smaller, less than half a point. His final share was almost identical at both platforms with an average of 4.5.
Most of the numbers, while not exactly the same between the two sites, show the same trends. Chris Christie, however, had an interesting split decision. In FiveThirtyEight’s average, Christie gained 0.3 to end August at 3.6 percent. In the Real Clear Politics estimation, he lost half a point to finish at 2.5 percent. This probably reflects different weighting by the averaging sites as well as decisions on which polls to include or exclude.
Of the top-tier candidates, Tim Scott was the clear loser. Scott lost ground in both averages to end at 3.0 percent on FiveThirtyEight and 2.4 percent in Real Clear Politics. Both sites showed a loss of just over half a point.
There were, of course, other candidates at the debate, but I’m not going to talk about them because they don’t matter. If Doug Burgum or Asa Hutchinson starts to surge, we’ll take a closer look at them then.
At this point, Trump is pretty clearly the guy to beat. There are some interesting developments though. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 45 percent of Republicans would not vote for Trump if he was "convicted of a felony crime by a jury." Thirty-five percent said they would vote for him anyway.
This poll has made waves because of the trial date for Trump’s election tampering case in federal court. A judge recently set the date to open that trial for March 4, 2024. This is the day before the Super Tuesday primary elections. Many Republicans think the date of the trial is dirty pool, but judges don’t typically take a defendant’s schedule into mind when setting trial dates.
I’ll also note that the prosecution had asked for a January trial date while the Trump team wanted a long delay. The judge’s decision may have been influenced by Trump attorney and spokesperson Alina Habbe, who said on Fox News, “You don’t have to prep much when you’ve done nothing wrong.”
Further, the trial is not going to be a quick one and Trump is unlikely to be convicted before the end of the primary season. The Washington Post points out that both sides expect to take four to six weeks to present their cases, which would put the closing date of the trial near the end of the primary season.
While his legal affairs might keep Trump off the campaign trail, just a similar case would keep any average American out of work or school, the evidence so far is that Trump does not need to campaign to win Republican votes. And Trump won’t be off the political radar as there will undoubtedly be wall-to-wall coverage of the (yet another) trial of the century. (I expect about three or four trials of the century over the next couple of years, more if a celebrity is involved in a murder.)
Ross Duthout, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, thinks that the trial date is actually a boon to Trump, in part because Republicans, including Trump’s opponents in the primary, have a knee-jerk tendency to rally around The Former Guy when he is criticized or attacked.
“To beat Trump in the primaries, challengers would need part of that bloc to resist the rallying impulse and swing their way instead,” Duthout writes. “So timing Trump’s prosecution but not the final outcome of the trial to some of the most important primaries seems more likely to cement his nomination than to finally make his poll numbers collapse.”
The bigger problem might be if Trump is convicted, which in my view is a strong possibility but not a sure thing in this case. If the trial concludes at the end of the primary season with Trump in his current strong frontrunner position, Republicans could find themselves with a convict as a candidate. Biden’s 2020 pandemic campaign would seem extravagant and uninhibited compared to a campaign in which the candidate was in prison.
I’ll wager that in that case, the number of Republicans willing to vote for a candidate with a felony conviction would rise from 35 percent to about 90 percent. At least he’s not a “socialist” or a “groomer,” they’ll say.
“It’s all political,” the party of “lock her up!” will rationalize.
But Republicans have the opportunity to avoid such a fate. The best alternative is to use a corollary to the Buckley Rule and pick the best and most conservative candidate who is not under indictment. At this point, I’d say that the candidate who best fits that test is Nikki Haley (although this is not an endorsement), but she has a long, hard climb to even become a viable challenger to the embattled former president.
FIRST BLOOD: The Republican primary’s first casualty was Miami Mayor Frances Suarez. Suarez ended his campaign on Tuesday after failing to make the cut to appear in the debate. It isn’t clear why he started the campaign.
UKRAINE BREAKS THROUGH: Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive has been moving slowly for months as the beleaguered country’s soldiers attacked fortified Russian positions without air supremacy. Now, there are reports that Ukraine has experienced its first breakthrough of the campaign. Ukrainian forces have reportedly pierced the first defensive line in the southeastern region of the country, which may allow them to move faster as they enter the rear of the Russian army.
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NOTE: I replaced the table for Haley and Pence results with a textual description.