Pundits are currently focusing on the national horse race in the early four primary and caucus states. But there’s a good chance that the Republican nomination will be decided long after the news cameras leave Nevada on the night of Feb. 23, 2016.
That’s because Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada are only make-or-break states with a small field of candidates. This cycle, the ballots are more crowded and with all four early states awarding delegates based on a proportional or hybrid allocation, candidates can roll on with a smaller share of the vote.
In fact, Florida and Ohio, which vote March 15, and Pennsylvania, which votes on April 26, could be the make-or-break contests this cycle. Florida is a winner-takes-all state, as is Ohio. But Pennsylvania employs a hybrid system for awarding delegates by congressional district. Each of these states has been surveyed by public polling firms, but are generally ignored when it comes to most political observers talking about the primaries.
And while the polling news of the day is Ben Carson taking over the lead from Donald Trump in national surveys and Marco Rubio gaining traction, our Trendency Research numbers show that Trump is still doing quite well in theses states, which are going to be dolling out the delegates needed to secure the nomination. In fact, as it stands right now, our data shows Trump leading in all three swing states.
If you read the headlines, you would imagine the recent upheavals in the race — the “Jeb Bush collapse” and the “Rise of Rubio” — would point to a changed dynamic on the GOP side. While we have seen both of these trends appear at a low level in the data, the larger picture remains true to form: Trump and Carson are dominating, although that could change with the news surrounding Carson’s West Point “scholarship.”
Take Florida, home turf for Bush and Rubio, where Trump not only leads overall but is showing true strength in his support. As we have mentioned in previous articles, the Trendency data allows us to examine a candidate’s support at different Thresholds. Voters at the higher Thresholds are less volatile in their support and less likely to move away from their candidate of choice. Lower Threshold voters are more prone to switching their allegiance and are just as likely to stick with their candidate as they are to move to another.
In Florida, Trump currently has 54 percent of the support at the 90 Threshold (strong supporters), with Bush second at 17 percent and Carson at 13 percent. Rubio is only at 4 percent. At the 75 Threshold (allowing for a little more volatility), Trump leads Bush and Carson 46 percent to 21 and 14 percent, respectively, with Rubio once again trailing at 6 percent.
In Ohio, the race is a little closer with Trump ahead at the 90 Threshold with 33 percent of the support, compared to 21 percent for Carson and 12 percent for Gov. John Kasich. By the time we open up the data to the 25 Threshold, Trump still leads but his advantage is down to only 4 percentage points over Carson (24-20). Rubio, meanwhile, is at 2 percent at the 90 Threshold and 2 percent all the way down at the 25 Threshold.
Pennsylvania follows the same pattern as Ohio, with Trump leading Carson at the 90 Threshold 34 percent to 19 percent. Meanwhile, Rubio is third here at 9 percent. Again, by the time we include the 25 Threshold, Trump’s advantage over Carson is down to 3 points — 24 versus 21 — with Rubio at 12 percent.
What about the recent surge for Rubio in the public national polling? The Trendency data has shown a slight uptick in the senator’s numbers overall, but this movement haven’t yet translated into strong supporters. In fact, Bush maintains stronger entrenched support than Rubio in these three states at this time.
In Florida, for instance, Rubio does get double-digit support (10 percent), but only once we look at the 25 Threshold. Again, these are weaker supporters more prone to drift between candidates. Way up at the 90 Threshold, Rubio only garners 4 percent of the support, tied with Carly Fiorina. As it currently stands, 89 percent of Florida voters are unlikely to support his candidacy in the Florida Primary (our Rejection Index), compared to 81 percent for Bush and 67 percent for Trump.
The picture looks a little rosier in Pennsylvania, where Rubio has more consistent support across the board. In the Key Stone State, he ranges from 9-12 percent at the various Thresholds. Nonetheless, a similar number of voters (89 percent) are currently unlikely to support his candidacy at this time.
So is the “Rubio Rise” in national numbers true?
There’s no doubt that Rubio has benefited from Bush’s weak messaging strategy and his less-than-stellar performance at the CNBC debate. But according to our Trendency data, these factors haven’t yet translated into supporters he can count on. As of right now Rubio is just as likely to gain supporters over the next few weeks as he is to lose them.
But either way, not many primary voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida are all in for Rubio unlike his rivals Trump and Carson. Rubio might be on the rise in some polls, but in these three swing states, Trump remains the candidate to beat for what should be some vital Republican delegates.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.