CNN Poll: Donald Trump Up 16 in South Carolina, Tight Race Between Bush, Rubio

Donald Trump
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

A new CNN poll of South Carolina shows Donald Trump with a broad lead over the rest of the Republican field in the third stage of the GOP’s 2016 race.

Trump, with 38 percent support, is 16 points clear of the runner-up, Sen. Ted Cruz, who has 22 percent support, according to the poll.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio are locked in a tight battle for third. Rubio currently has 14 percent support, closely followed by Bush with 10 percent support, according to the poll. The margin of error in the CNN poll is 5 percent, though, so the race between Rubio and Bush is essentially tied.

Dr. Ben Carson trails in fifth place, with 6 percent support. Gov. John Kasich is last with 4 percent support.

The prior poll CNN conducted in South Carolina was in October.

Trump’s current level of support, 38 percent, is generally the same as the 36 percent registered that poll. The only real movements since October has been the collapse in support for Ben Carson, dropping from 18 percent to 6 percent and the rise in Ted Cruz. The Texas Senator had 5 percent support in October, compared with 22 percent support today. Rubio and Bush both moved up a handful of points since October.

The survey is based on interviews with 404 likely Republican voters, conducted Wednesday through Monday.

Interestingly, CNN reports that Donald Trump saw a large drop in support after the Republican debate on Saturday. Prior to the debate, Trump was polling at 40 percent support. After the debate, however, Trump was polling at 31 percent support.

Most of the poll was conducted prior to the debate, however, so any impact from the debate may not be fully reflected in the poll.

Trump’s edge with voters is on issues like the economy and illegal immigration. He leads the Republican field by wide margins on both issues. The economy is the top issue, while illegal immigration is just the fourth most important issue for voters in South Carolina. However, many voters may see those two issues as closely related.

Trump does lead on the issue of foreign policy, but by a much more narrow margin. When asked which candidate can best handle foreign policy, 29 percent pick Trump, 22 percent pick Cruz, 18 percent pick Bush and just 17 percent pick Rubio.

Rubio has made foreign policy central to his campaign in recent weeks, so his fourth place showing on this issue is perhaps surprising.

Cruz leads Trump by 7 points on social issues. The two are also tied on the question of which candidates “best represents Republicans like yourself.” Both are far ahead of Rubio and Bush on this question.

Trump leads by a wide margin on the question of which candidate is most likely to change how Washington works. Almost two-thirds of Republicans, 60 percent, believe Trump has the best chance to change Washington, far ahead of his nearest rival, Ted Cruz. Just 16 percent of voters believe Cruz is best positioned to change Washington.

A majority of Republicans, 53 percent, also believe Trump has the best chance of winning a general election against the Democrats.

These final two numbers — the best chance of changing Washington and of winning — are likely the wind propelling Trump in the final days of the campaign.

That said, only 49 percent of voters say they have definitely made up their mind. A slim majority, 51 percent, say they are leaning in a direction or may still change their minds.

The poll has few demographic breakdowns, because of the relatively small size of the overall poll. CNN only publishes cross-tabs for subgroups where the sample size is large enough to ensure a margin of error of 8.5 percent or less.

The only significant subgroup is among conservatives. With these voters, Trump leads Cruz by 10 points, 36-26.

There is no information about the demographic or ideological make-up of CNN’s poll. CNN’s final poll of New Hampshire underestimated Trump’s final vote, while its final poll in Iowa significantly overestimated the frontrunner’s vote.

Trump’s strong lead in the CNN poll is consistent with other public polling of South Carolina. CNN’s report that Trump’s support dipped significantly after the Republican debate does warrant a fair degree of caution, however. Most polling to date hasn’t fully reflected the potential impact of the debate.

The reported drop-off could just be a statistical blip. It could, however, signal that the South Carolina race becomes closer than people are anticipating.