Aug 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Trump's historic dominance

Illustration of a red neck tie as a bar on a chart

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

No candidate has lost a party's nomination with a polling margin like former President Trump's — and it's been more than 20 years since a Republican has had this big of a lead, this consistently, in an open primary.

Why it matters: The eight Republicans on stage Wednesday night are historic underdogs and unlikely to claim the nomination unless the shape of the race changes, either through their efforts or outside forces.

  • Trump averages more than 50% support in national primary polls, and that number has remained relatively steady across his four criminal indictments.
  • During the 2000 cycle, Al Gore averaged about 58% in national polls before the primary, while George W. Bush averaged about 59% on the Republican side, per MSNBC's Steve Kornacki.
  • Hillary Clinton averaged about 61% at this point during the 2016 election before she became the Democratic nominee.

Zoom in: Trump has cited his large polling advantage as reasoning for skipping Wednesday's Republican primary debate, the first of the cycle.

  • "People know my Record, one of the BEST EVER, so why would I Debate?" he wrote on his Truth Social last week.
  • He's leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his closest challenger, by more than 37 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight's average. Early primary state polling also shows a similar story.

Zoom out: General election polling, which is not fully predictive at this point, shows Trump and President Biden locked in a tight contest in a hypothetical rematch.

  • But during the 2016 and 2020 elections, Trump trailed the Democratic nominees during general election matchups at this point in the cycle, per CNN.
  • Most Americans did not want Trump or Biden to run for president, so there is always a chance that voter fatigue catches up to one of them.
  • Trump may also face a ceiling among Republican voters — almost a third of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have a very or mostly unfavorable view of him.

Between the lines: No presidential candidate has closed the gap on a lead as wide as Trump's since at least the 1970s — when the parties put more emphasis on letting primary voters decide nominees — according to Washington Post analysis.

  • Candidates have gained ground when the deficit is greater than 10 percentage points, but not when it's been greater than 30 at this point in the cycle, CNN found.
  • "He's been president, he's been the nominee twice, so he's an obvious choice for a lot of Republicans, but I don't think he's sealed the nomination by any means," Dan Cox, the director of the American Enterprise Institute's Survey Center on American Life, told Axios.

The bottom line: There is one cautionary tale for Trump, even if the margins and circumstances are different.

  • During the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton was leading Barack Obama by an average of about 28 percentage points in October of 2007 before he ultimately clinched the nomination.

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