Rival Polls Show Donald Trump Leading or Level with Cruz, Bush Far Behind

GOP Final Six

A survey by Public Policy Polling finds Donald Trump holding a wide lead against the Republican field in South Carolina and a tight battle for second place, while a poll conducted by Jeb Bush’s allies supposedly shows Trump neck-and-neck with Sen. Ted Cruz.

The PPP poll shows Donald Trump with 35 percent support among likely Republican primary voters. Trump has a 17 point lead over Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, who are tied for second, with 18 percent support each.

Ohio Governor John Kasich is a distant third, with 10 percent support. Jeb Bush and neurosurgeon Ben Carson are tied for last, with seven percent support each.

The poll was released to South Carolina news site, The State, so little information is available about the poll. According to The State, PPP surveyed 837 likely Republican voters on Sunday and Monday. The poll’s margin of error is 3.7 percent.

This skimpy result is very different from an even more vague poll released Monday night via Fox News’s media critic, Howard Kurtz.

The poll was conducted by Right to Rise, a super PAC aligned with Jeb Bush. It is a so-called “internal” poll, because it was conducted within a campaign. 

The Bush poll, conducted Thursday through Saturday, shows Donald Trump with a slim two point lead over Ted Cruz, at 26 percent to 24 percent. The poll says Cruz has gained from greater support among evangelicals.

Bush is third in his own poll, at 12 percent, followed closely by Rubio with 11 percent. For Bush, that thin lead is worth touting because he’s trying to shoulder Rubio out of the campaign before the Florida primaries. The report does not mention the percentage support won by Bush’s other rival, Kasich.

Without knowing the details of this Bush poll — is there a representative percentage of old and young or of evangelicals and libertarian conservatives, for example? — it is difficult to guess if the poll is flawed, an statistical outlier, or a signal of real change.

PPP’s previous poll of the state was in early November. That poll showed Trump with a four point lead over Ben Carson. In early September, a PPP poll of South Carolina showed Trump with a 16 point lead in the state.

It is noteworthy that, at those times, PPP’s polls of the state were consistent with other public polling done at that time. The PPP poll partially released Monday is also consistent with other public polls released recently.

The poll was conducted after the Republican debate in Charleston on Saturday. Because PPP hasn’t polled in the state recently, it is impossible to tell whether there have been significant changes in candidates’ standings since then.

With less than a week of campaigning left before the primary on Saturday, any polling in the state is going to be trying to hit a moving target. It isn’t even clear how volitile the electorate will be. In 2012, many voters didn’t decide until the final days of the campaign. In 2008, however, most voters had decided on a candidate long before the final week of campaigning.

The best way to evaluate this PPP poll is as one data point. Over the next two days there will be many more public polls released. The key is to identify trends.

All currently released polls show Trump with a large lead in the state. There is a great deal of variation in how the other candidates finish, however. Ted Cruz needs at least a strong second place showing to regain the momentum he had after Iowa.

The more interesting battle, perhaps, is between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Few observers expect Kasich to do particularly well in South Carolina, but Bush and Rubio are in a cage match to claim their part of the “mainstream Republican” lane.

Bush unexpectedly edged out Rubio in New Hampshire. If Bush does it again, Rubio will have a difficult time arguing he is best positioned to challenge Trump or Cruz. Only one of them is likely to make it out of South Carolina. If the PPP poll is accurate, Bush’s days as a candidate may be winding down.