Donald Trump’s General Election Challenge

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Las Vegas. (
AP Photo/Isaac Brekken

Almost every day, a new poll confirms Donald Trump’s status as the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination. The last time he didn’t lead a national poll was way back in November, and that turned out to be a brief blip.

But while Trump may have the edge in the Republican contest, he faces very high hurdles in a general election campaign.

According to recent data from Gallup, Trump has by far the lowest favorable ratings among Independents and Democrats among any Republican candidates. His net-favorable rating among Democrats–the difference between those with positive and negative opinions–is -70. By way of comparison, the net-favorable ratings among Democrats of Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee, the next least favorite GOP candidates of Democrats, is just -37 and -34.

In other words, Trump’s unpopularity among Democrats is almost twice that of Cruz and Huckabee. Moreover, Trump’s position hasn’t improved over the course of the campaign. In July, soon after Trump entered the Presidential contest, his net-favorable rating with Democrats was -68. Trump’s standing among Democrats hasn’t improved at all through the course of the campaign, despite almost continuous media exposure.

Obviously, the path for a Republican to win the White House does not dip far into Democrat territory. At least 85 percent of Democrats will support their party’s nominee, no matter who that candidate is.

Elections, however, often turn on the intensity of voters’ feelings. If Trump, as the Republican nominee, remains so absurdly unpopular with Democrats, these voters may have even more determination to turn out to vote. Voters are at least just as likely to turn out to oppose a candidate as support one.

Trump’s challenge isn’t simply trying to calm the opposition of Democrats. He also has a serious problem with Independent voters. His net-favorable rating with Independents is -27, far, far worse than any other Republican candidate. When Gallup recalculated the numbers to only include those Independents who were really familiar with Trump, his rating dipped even more to -30.

Jeb Bush is the second least popular Republican among Independents, but his net-favorable rating is just -13. Marco Rubio is +4, while Ted Cruz is just -3.

Republicans do need to win Independents to capture the White House. This voting block made up around 29 percent of the electorate in the last presidential election. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat President Obama among Independents by 5 points.

A recent poll from WBUR in New Hampshire found that Donald Trump led the GOP field by just 9 points among Independents in the Granite State. Among these “undeclared” voters, the largest single voting block in New Hampshire, Trump had 26 percent while Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz were tied for second with 15 percent.

Tellingly, though, in models predicting the number of Independents who chose to participate in the New Hampshire Republican primary, Trump’s overall support went down as Independents increased their voting. In one scenario, where most Independents participated in the GOP primary, a not unrealistic outcome, Trump was essentially tied with John Kasich.

In all scenarios, Trump’s support measurably dropped as more Independents turned out in the Republican primary.

One optimistic note for Trump is that he once was very unpopular among Republican voters. Back in June, in a FoxNews poll, 59 percent of Republicans said they could never support Trump for the nomination. In an NBC poll this week, just 34 percent of Republicans said they couldn’t imagine supporting Trump.

That said, even among Republicans, Trump’s net-favorable ratings aren’t great. Among Republican voters who are familiar with the candidates, Trump’s rating is just +30. This is tied with Chris Christie and ahead of Jeb Bush and John Kasich.

By comparison, though, Ted Cruz rating is +65, Marco Rubio’s is +59 and Ben Carson is +58.

It is unmistakable, though, that Trump’s favorable ratings among Republicans have dramatically improved over the course of the campaign. Much of his improved can be tied to his strong positions against illegal immigration and forceful rhetoric on national security and terrorism.

To win in November, however, Trump will need to also dramatically lift his numbers with Independents and Democrats. He needs to win over Independents and at least cool the animosity towards him among Democrats.

Based on his campaign so far, Trump is likely to stake out some strong positions that appeal to Independents and, to an extent Democrats. It isn’t clear what those positions would be, but it presents another challenge for Trump. His support among Republicans, based solely on his favorable ratings, is tenuous.

A Nixonian lurch to the center for the general election to win Independents could seriously erode Trump’s support among Republicans. Trump has so far defied most political odds, however. In a few weeks, the question of how Trump solves his general election problem may no longer be a hypothetical exercise.