Another week, another set of polls showing Donald Trump with a huge lead over his opponents in the Republican presidential nomination. And a dive into the numbers shows that the former president’s lead may be more durable than that enjoyed by major presidential candidates in recent summers.
The latest Quinnipiac National Poll puts Trump’s GOP support at 62 percent, 50 points ahead of his closest foe, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A new Washington Post/Monmouth poll in the primary state of South Carolina, the first in the South, has Trump at 46%, with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley a distant second at 18%. That advantage is even more impressive when you consider that both Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, also of South Carolina, have won multiple elections there. And yet their combined share of support in the South Carolina poll, 28%, is just over half of Trump’s.
At this point, there’s nothing new or particularly surprising about numbers like these. Since April, Trump has been consistently polling above 50% in variable national averages and has established formidable leads in key early states. Our own NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom Pollfor example, it gave Trump a 42%-19% lead over DeSantis in Iowa last month.
It’s been a while since a non-incumbent GOP candidate has enjoyed such a large and sustained lead at this point in the campaign. To find a parallel, you have to go back to the fall of 1999, when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was sitting Trump-sized nationally and in early states.
Bush, of course, won the nomination, though not without a real scare. He ended up getting crushed in New Hampshire by John McCain before surviving a final battle with McCain in South Carolina, only to turn around and suffer an upset loss in Michigan, and then finally steady the ship enough to win a series of big states on Super Tuesday and force the surrender of McCain.
In other words, what in the fall of 1999 looked like a slippery slope to the GOP nomination turned into a bruising and politically costly primary battle for Bush, who likely damaged his image with general election voters and it almost cost him what ended up being a razor-thin victory over Democrat Al Gore.
So on the face of it, the case of Bush and the 2000 Republican primaries offers some hope to Trump’s rivals, who are looking at polls that look as dire to them now as they did to Bush’s enemies at the time of 2000. cycle.
But within the numbers, there’s a key difference, one that suggests Trump may be far less vulnerable to the kind of slippage Bush eventually suffered.
It has to do with how many Republican voters tell pollsters that they have already made up their minds and definitely plan to vote for the candidate they now support. This is where we see significant differences between Trump’s position now and Bush’s in the fall of 1999.
Let’s start with the national survey. This week’s Quinnipiac poll has Trump at 62%, DeSantis at 12% and the rest of the field in the single digits.
A CNN/SSRS National Poll last week which found a similar, though not as overwhelming, lead for Trump, with him 52% to DeSantis’ 18% ahead of the single-digit brigade.
Again, these are just two recent polls, but they are consistent with what national polls have been showing for some time. Now, compare them to what the national GOP race looked like in the fall of ’99, via a CBS/New York Times poll at the time: Bush had 63%, while McCain was closer to he with 14%, with Steve Forbes. and Alan Keyes behind him.
You can see how similar Trump and Bush’s advantages are. But this is where the level of commitment of their supporters comes into play. In this week’s Quinnipiac poll, 68 percent of Trump supporters say they are “strongly fixated on Trump, no matter what happens before the Republican primary.” Similarly, in the CNN/SSRS poll, 85% of Trump supporters say they will “definitely” support him.
But with Bush in 1999, the story was different. In that CBS/New York Times poll, only 43 percent of his supporters said they were decided.
The same trend also appears in the first state surveys. As mentioned, our recent NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll gave Trump a 42%-19% lead over DeSantis in Iowa, with no other Republicans in double digits. In that poll, 67% of Trump supporters said they had already made up their minds.
By contrast, in the fall of 1999, the Register poll put Bush ahead of Steve Forbes 49% to 20%, with McCain at 8% and Gary Bauer at 7%. But only 42% of Bush supporters said they were decided.
In New Hampshire, where recent high-quality polling has been scarce, there is one University of New Hampshire July Poll that put Trump up 37% to 23% over DeSantis. It also found that 76 percent of Trump supporters said they would definitely vote for him.
In 1999, Bush, like Trump, did not poll as strongly in New Hampshire as elsewhere. He led McCain 41 percent to 28 percent in a fall Quinnipiac poll in the state. But only 35 percent of Bush supporters in that poll said they were decided. This soft level of commitment helps explain why Bush was so vulnerable in the state and ended up losing it by 20 points to McCain.
That’s what makes Trump’s lead in the new South Carolina poll that much more striking. Not only is she crushing both a “favorite daughter” candidate, Haley, and a “favorite son” candidate, Scott, she also enjoys a deep and unparalleled level of engagement, with 76 percent of current supporters saying they will definitely vote in favor. he
We are looking at a unique set of circumstances in the current Republican contest. Yes, we’ve seen forwards with Trump-sized advantages before; in addition to Bush in 2000, there was also Bob Dole in the 1996 cycle. But neither Bush nor Dole enjoyed close to the level of commitment that Trump seems to impose on his supporters.
If these Trump supporters mean what they say, then he has already locked up the vast majority of the support he is now receiving in the polls. Moreover, even among those who are now not on board with him, Trump remains quite popular, with favorable ratings in the polls. usually the strongest or almost the strongest among the GOP camp. It’s just as easy, or perhaps even easier, to imagine Trump’s support expanding further rather than evaporating.
Twenty-four years ago, the path the polls suggested Bush was on turned out to be a mirage, and he ended up having to scratch his way to the GOP presidential nomination. But with Trump, it may not be a mirage at all.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com