We’re at the stage of the cycle when Donald Trump envy has set in. First, there was denial that the businessman’s fast rise in the polls was real. No shortage of excuses were offered by observers and practitioners who assumed his candidacy would quickly fade. Next, anger from fellow Republican candidates. How could someone with so little substance continue to pull away from the pack and resonate with voters?
Then reality began to set in: Trump wasn’t going anywhere for a while. That’s when Republican candidates began the bargaining phase. They inexorably shifted their policies and statements toward what Trump had successfully tapped.
Now, acceptance has given away to envy. This week the Washington Post published an internal NRSC memo detailing how Republican candidates can learn from the real estate tycoon.
“Trump has risen because voters see him as authentic, independent, direct, firm, — and believe he can’t be bought,” Ward Baker, NRSC’s executive director, wrote. “These are the same character traits our candidates should be advancing in 2016. That’s Trump lesson #1.”
So despite all his faults and the pitfalls that his nomination might unleash, Trump’s attitude and tactics could and should be emulated, according to Baker. “Grab onto the best elements of [his] anti-Washington populist agenda,” he encouraged candidates.
This isn’t as crazy as it at first sounds, despite some reservations being expressed by members of the GOP over what Trump’s nomination could do to Senate candidates running in purple states.
As we've detailed in previous articles, Republican voters in early primary states and those in general election swing states have already accepted Trump. In Florida, for example, he maintains his stranglehold over a state that has two native establishment candidates, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, also in the field.
Trendency Research looks at voter opinion on a continuum and not as a binary choice. Instead of choosing one candidate they support, Trendency surveys allow respondents to allocate their support on a sliding scale among candidates. This allows for an in-depth examination of support at various levels, which we call Threshold Analysis.
Voters for a candidate who are at higher Threshold are stronger in their convictions and less likely to shift to another person. Those at lower Thresholds divide their support among more candidates and more easily shift allegiance.
At the 90 Threshold in Florida, Trump leads with 58 percent of the vote. But this drops to a mere 50 percent at the 75 Threshold. Both of those numbers are up about 4 percent from our last examination of the data in early November.
Even at the lower Thresholds, where more movement might be expected, little change happened during the previous month. The vote is more diversified, with Bush, Ben Carson, and Rubio all in double digits. But Trump still jumps ahead with 31 percent of the support.
It gets even better for Trump when we ask Florida voters who they think will end up winning the Republican nomination. Fully 70 percent of those at the 90 Threshold and 64 percent of those at the 75 Threshold think that he’ll end up as the GOP presidential nominee. Even at the lowest Threshold, 40 percent of voters think his victory is inevitable — that's 25 points above his nearest rivals (Rubio, Bush and Carson). In Florida at least, Trump is the accepted leader.
But what about the general election? While Trendency Research is not currently testing individual matchups, data on the generic presidential vote is illuminating.
As might be expected from the ultimate swing state, Florida is a tossup. When looking at the 90 Threshold, voters currently would chose a Democratic presidential candidate over a Republican by 50-47 percent. At the 75 Threshold, this Democratic advantage slips to 1 point, 49-48 percent. A generic Republican candidate takes the lead at the 50 Threshold, 50-47 percent and maintains a 2-point advantage at the 25 Threshold, 48-46 percent.
With the caveat that this is just under a year from the election, Democrats in Florida hold a slight advantage with those voters who are stronger in their convictions, while Republicans do the same with those more likely to shift their votes. These margins are small, but in a state such as Florida, any margin can mean victory.
It’ll be interesting to see where the general election numbers move if Trump were to win the nomination. Still, we’ll be keeping an eye on whether the NRSC made the right call on emulating Trump or if they should have gone in a different direction.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.