Ted Cruz Overtakes Donald Trump in Latest Republican Presidential Poll
Texas senator leads businessman 28% to 26% nationally, Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds
By JANET HOOK | Feb. 17, 2016 7:42 p.m. ET
Support for Donald Trump among Republicans has declined in the past month, leaving him slightly behind Sen. Ted Cruz in the GOP presidential race, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted after a combative debate performance that may have soured some voters on the New York businessman.
Mr. Trump had enjoyed a double-digit lead over his rivals, but the new poll found support for him falling by seven percentage points since mid-January. Among registered voters who said they would participate in a GOP primary, he drew 26% support in the new poll, trailing Mr. Cruz, who had 28%. The survey, of 400 registered voters who said they would participate in a GOP primary, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
A number of other GOP candidates have dropped out of the race, a winnowing of the field that has benefited Mr. Trump’s rivals. The poll shows that if the primary came down to a head-to-head choice, both Mr. Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio could beat Mr. Trump by double-digit margins.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich jumped from the bottom tier of the field to fourth place, with 11%. He edged out retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who had 10% support in the new poll, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who slid to a low mark of 4%.
The new survey marks the first time since the fall that the Journal/NBC News poll has found anyone other than Mr. Trump in the lead among Republicans nationally, and it differs from other recent national surveys that show him holding a steady lead. That means it could reflect a shift in mood, a temporary blip or a finding outside the mainstream.
“When you see a number this different, it means you might be right on top of a shift in the campaign,” said Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Fred Yang. “What you don’t know yet is if the change is going to take place or if it is a momentary pause before the numbers snap back into place.”
Mr. Yang said the poll suggests Mr. Trump, with fewer opponents, may be nearing the limit of his support.
“As the field shrinks, as the spotlight becomes more glaring on him, he does have a ceiling,” Mr. Yang said on MSNBC.
Mr. McInturff noted that the Republicans surveyed included more who identified themselves as very conservative, which plays to Mr. Cruz’s strength. But even taking that into account, he said, it is clear Mr. Trump’s lead has turned into a virtual tie in this poll.
Mr. Trump leads in polls in South Carolina, site of the next primary, to be held Saturday.
The Journal/NBC national poll was conducted Feb. 14-16, the three days after GOP candidates met in a televised debate in South Carolina. Mr. Trump turned in an especially aggressive, insult-laced performance, faulting Mr. Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush, for failing to stop the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Daniel Cleveland, 25, who lives outside Spartanburg, S.C., said he had been considering Mr. Trump and called the candidate’s willingness to speak his mind refreshing. But he was turned off by Mr. Trump’s debate performance.
“He just lost his cool,” said Mr. Cleveland. “It was the first time I’ve seen him lose his cool like that. He was very upset.”
“I thought at first maybe he was serious, but the more I watched him, to me he is not serious,” Mrs. Kartes said. “John Kasich, he doesn’t want the fray, he doesn’t want the fighting.”
Some Republican candidates have argued that the death of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and the coming fight to name his successor, should re-emphasize to voters that the eventual nominee should be the one best equipped to defeat the Democratic candidate. But the poll found that electability isn’t the top concern of GOP primary voters. Asked which quality matters most in deciding to support a candidate, 35% said “shares your values,” while only 16% picked “can win in November.”
Almost half of Mr. Trump’s backers believe the most important quality for a candidate is to “tell it like it is,” but some also believe he is best equipped to beat the Democrats’ eventual nominee.
Scott Faulkner, a Republican from Concord, N.C., said he likes many things about Mr. Bush but is supporting Mr. Trump, because he believes Mr. Bush is unlikely to win in the fall.
“He’s got a tough row to hoe,” said Mr. Faulkner. “Trump would have a better chance of beating [Democrat Hillary] Clinton.”
Mr. Trump fared poorly among women: only 18% picked him as their choice for nominee, down from 36% in the January poll.
Another big shift came among so-called traditional-values conservatives, a pivotal group of abortion-rights and gay-marriage opponents who make up half of the GOP primary voters surveyed. Among that group, Mr. Trump drew support from 20%, down from 31% in a Journal/NBC poll a month ago. Mr. Cruz led among that group, with 33% support, while Mr. Rubio drew 19%.
In another warning sign for Mr. Trump, the poll found a significant drop in a broader measure of his acceptability as a candidate: The share of Republican primary voters who could see themselves supporting him as the nominee fell to 56% from 65% a month ago.
Messrs. Rubio, Cruz and Carson all were more broadly acceptable to voters than was Mr. Trump.
When Republican candidates were pitted against each other in test match-ups, the poll found that Messrs. Cruz and Rubio were about equally equipped to best Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump would lose to Mr. Cruz by 56% to 40%, the poll found. Mr. Rubio would beat Mr. Trump by 57% to 41%, a reversal from last month, when the poll found Mr. Trump winning that matchup by a 6-point margin.
Other candidates tested in hypothetical matchups were weaker than Mr. Trump. The poll found Mr. Trump would beat Mr. Bush by 54% to 43%, and he would beat Mr. Kasich by 52% to 44%.
—Josh Dawsey contributed to this article.
Write to Janet Hook at [email protected]