Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is poised to absorb Donald Trump’s supporters when the billionaire exits the race for the GOP presidential nomination, according to one of the campaign’s most common narratives. But how many Trump supporters are open to supporting another candidate?
The quickest analysis of the Republican race divides candidates into distinct establishment and anti-establishment lanes, including lumping Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson supporters together as a monolithic force that is interchangeable between the candidates.
Unsurprisingly, the situation is more complicated.
Both Trump and Cruz have found success in the Republican race by railing against the GOP establishment and there is a tendency to couple their fates because of their outsider message. But part of Trump’s appeal is his personality and profile, as evidenced by a December CNN piece , “Trump supporters' second choice? Trump.”
"There isn't anybody else,” 47-year-old Sean Hadley told CNN at a Trump rally in Des Moines. “Everybody else is bought and paid for, no matter what party.” Trump supporter Ernie Martin also said he didn’t have a second choice because he didn’t trust any of the alternatives because “they’re all connected to Washington.”
Cruz might be able to attract some Trump supporters with his rhetoric and policy positions, but he can’t change who he is — a sitting senator, a politician — and who he is not — a successful businessman and celebrity.
In some big ways, Cruz is not identical to Trump — a larger than life candidate who people hope can bring about change and fix what’s broken in the country through sheer force of personality, as Yahoo’s Jon Ward wrote after spending time talking with Trump supporters in line for a rally last month.
Of course, that evidence is anecdotal, but not necessarily irrelevant. And Trump’s support in the polls is undeniable, as is the possibility that he leaves the race before winning the nomination. But identifying precisely how many Trump supporters are amenable to Cruz is challenging.
“We are fighting to be their second choice,” one Cruz ally told Roll Call about Trump supporters. “We have a majority of his second choice voters. If he does drop, we, by a majority, are the beneficiary.”
A mid-December automated poll of Iowa Republican primary voters by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, backed up that assertion and showed that 36 percent of Trump supporters said Cruz was their second choice. Carson was second with 14 percent while none of the other candidates cracked double digits. Another 14 percent said they were “undecided” on the second choice question.
But, even though Trump outpaced Cruz 28 percent to 25 percent on the primary ballot in that PPP survey, a potentially more important question is whether Cruz needs Trump supporters at all.
According to the Cruz loyalist, the Texas senator is well-positioned in Iowa on Feb. 1 in a lower turnout scenario which includes Republicans who have participated in previous caucuses, without any current Trump supporters.
For example, a December poll by Selzer & Co. for the Des Moines Register showed Cruz with a 31 percent to 21 percent advantage over Trump in the Hawkeye State, followed by the rest of the field.
But Trump performs better in higher turnout scenarios when the pool of participants includes Republicans who have rarely or never participated in a caucus before, and thus deemed unlikely to vote.
“If turnout is up a little bit, we like where we are,” according to the Cruz source. “If it’s up a lot, it starts to get much stronger for Trump.”
Part of that confidence stems from Cruz’s effort (and not just Trump’s) to attract Republicans who haven’t previously been involved. The Carson campaign is appealing to casual Republicans as well.
Of course, the race in Iowa, and subsequent states, will come down to turnout, including Trump’s ability to get those infrequent or new Republicans out to vote.
“We still have a significant number of voters that are unlikely to turnout,” said the Cruz supporter. “He just has more of them than we do.”
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