A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll to give the GOP establishment nightmares

Selzer & Co’s new survey of Iowa Republicans for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg News gives GOP strategists plenty to worry about.

The top three “outsider” candidates (Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz) are the first choice for 49 percent of respondents. The top three “establishment” candidates (Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio) are the first choice for only 20 percent.

The survey also indicates that several candidates considered heavyweight contenders are yesterday’s news for likely GOP caucus-goers. The 2008 caucus winner Mike Huckabee is sitting at 4 percent, tied with Rand Paul, who had been expected to inherit much of his father’s support from the last election campaign. The 2012 winner Rick Santorum is at 1 percent.

The Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs wrote up the key findings here, with input from Jason Noble. My first thoughts about the numbers are after the jump.

Seller’s survey of 400 likely Republican caucus-goers between August 23 and 26 found Donald Trump to be the first choice of 23 percent, followed by Ben Carson (18 percent). Many national and state-level polls have shown a significant boost for Carson since the first televised Republican debate earlier this month. Although pundits didn’t pick up on it at the time, because Trump’s antics and insults stole the show, Carson seems to have benefited most from wider unfiltered exposure to the Republican base.

Carson has visited Iowa twelve times since 2013, but several other GOP presidential contenders have spent more time here. I would guess the debate did more to boost Carson than any retail campaigning he has done in Iowa.

Trump and Carson were the only candidates in double digits in Selzer’s latest poll. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the onetime Iowa front-runner, tied for third with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas at 8 percent. Two Floridians, Senator Marco Rubio and former Governor Jeb Bush, are tied at 6 percent. “Uncommitted” and “not sure” each registered 5 percent support, as did Carly Fiorina. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Senator Rand Paul both have 4 percent, while Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ohio Governor John Kasich all have 2 percent. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry is way down at 1 percent, and the bottom three contenders (Senator Lindsey Graham, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, former New York Governor George Pataki) couldn’t even manage that level of support.

David Kochel, a former top Iowa strategist for Mitt Romney and Joni Ernst, went to work for the Bush campaign earlier this year. Last night, he put a brave face on the Register’s poll numbers.

Reminder: there have been several Presidents of August over the course of the last two cycles. Six different leaders in Iowa in 2011. 1/2

Kochel added,

No President of August called themselves POTUS or “eventual nominee”. Iowa always volatile. Race gets serious in December. #iacaucus 2/2

That’s all true, but even five months before the Iowa caucuses, no campaign wants to be tied for fifth at 6 percent.

Moreover, the latest Selzer poll shows Bush in net negative territory; just 45 percent of likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers view him favorably, while 50 percent view him unfavorably. Other competitors for the “establishment” niche appear to have more room for growth; Walker’s at 71 percent favorable/15 percent unfavorable, and Rubio’s at 67/20.

Carson has the best favorability numbers in the group at 79 percent; he also has the lowest unfavorable rating at 8 percent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him top 20 percent in some Iowa polls this fall. The evangelical base seems interested in a fresh face rather than their previous favorites, Huckabee and Santorum.

Someone needs to do focus groups of former Rand Paul fans to find out what went wrong for him this year. I never expected to see his support drop below 10 percent in any poll of Iowa Republicans, but Selzer’s findings on Paul are similar to other recent Iowa surveys. Not only is the senator from Kentucky the first choice of fewer than 5 percent of caucus-goers, he is in net negative territory too, with just 39 percent of Selzer’s respondents viewing him favorably and 49 percent unfavorably. What turned so many Republicans off Paul? Was it his statements about foreign policy? Criminal justice reform? Government surveillance powers?

Trump has proven wrong an axiom of public opinion: it’s very hard to change people’s minds once they know you and have decided they don’t like you. When Selzer surveyed Iowa Republicans in January of this year, just 26 percent of respondents viewed Trump favorably, and 68 percent viewed him unfavorably. That’s one reason I thought Trump would never become a serious contender. Selzer’s poll of Iowa Republicans in May found little change: 27 percent of respondents had a favorable impression of Trump, 63 percent unfavorable.

This summer’s string of scandals over Trump’s offensive comments led to countless pundit commentaries about the business mogul “going too far.” Yet the so-called bad publicity made Trump far more appealing to Iowa Republicans. In the new poll, 61 percent of respondents said they view Trump favorably, just 35 percent unfavorably. I would not have thought it possible.

Two days ago, Ramesh Ponnuru made the Republican establishment case for not worrying. From “Trump Is a Nuisance, Not a Nightmare”:

Trump won’t win the primaries. How do I know?

Because parties don’t pick nominees who have never run for anything before, unless they happened to be the victorious Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II a few years earlier.

Because major parties don’t succumb to sudden hostile takeovers.

Because too many of his supporters are just registering discontent before they make a real decision several months from now — or have a low likelihood of voting in the primaries at all.

Because Republicans aren’t going to choose a nominee who wants to raise taxes on the rich. (A lot of Republicans may be fine with that idea, but a lot of opponents care deeply about it.)

Because Republican elected officials would consolidate behind a consensus choice if Trump started winning delegates.

Because the decisive Republican presidential primary voters are a pretty sober-minded bunch.

I am starting to lean toward the Matthew Yglesias view:

Though Trump is anything but a banal person, his rise in the polls has a very banal explanation – he stands for some ideas that are reasonably popular, but that no other well-financed candidate has previously articulated. Donors don’t like these ideas, so candidates normally don’t express them. But this bloc of opinion has existed for a long time and represents a huge swath of the Republican Party rank and file. Trump is the egomaniacal opportunist who’s finally giving voice to those ideas. And much of the American establishment is in deep denial about their real appeal.

Even if Trump starts to slide in the polls for some reason, candidates like Carson and Cruz seem better positioned to gain than do establishment candidates.  

A consensus insider choice could plausibly finish in the top three in Iowa, but how will Walker, Rubio, or Bush emerge as that consensus choice between now and February?

Any comments about the GOP presidential race are welcome in this thread.

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