The Clinton Factor
What makes this pattern especially fraught for GOP strategists is that Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination, also faces very sticky negative perceptions among voters outside of her partisan base. Yet for all of Clinton’s difficulties with independent voters and other swing constituencies, Trump’s standing among the same groups usually ranks lower in the same polls.
If Trump wins the nomination, Republicans will be exposed to the risk that Clinton can mobilize a winning coalition even without resolving voters’ concerns about her, simply because they find the alternative even less acceptable.
“Hillary is not going to have the same kind of positive pull and traction that Obama did, especially in 2008,” says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. “So the mobilization will be based more on anti-Trump or possibly anti-Ted Cruz kind of appeals.”
Across multiple national surveys, Trump’s improving image among Republicans since last summer is consistent and dramatic. In CNN/ORC polls, the share of Republicans expressing a favorable view of Trump has spiked from 51 percent in July to 71 percent in December. In Quinnipiac University surveys, Republican favorability toward Trump has soared from 34 percent in May to 63 percent in December. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has showed more modest gains, but even there, Trump’s favorability rating among likely GOP primary voters has increased from 44 percent in July to 51 percent last month.
The magnitude of the change among Republicans is even more apparent when considering Trump’s net favorability: that is, the difference between the share of Republicans who view him favorably and unfavorably. In the CNN/ORC poll, Trump’s net favorability has jumped from 9 to 43 percentage points; in Quinnipiac polls, he’s moved from a net negative rating of 18 points to a net positive of 33; and even in the NBC/WSJ survey, his net positive rating has nearly tripled from 9 to 25 percentage points.
Long-time GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos, who has not endorsed a 2016 candidate, says Trump has strengthened his standing inside the party so dramatically because he “has tapped into the Republican soul”—particularly the fear that the country is irreversibly changing under Obama.
“With Republicans, I think he [embodies the saying that] ‘desperate people do desperate things,’” Castellanos said. “We like him because maybe we see him as our last shot to repair this country. How has he done it? By antagonizing every adversary of the Republican base. And in doing that he’s cemented himself as the leader of our quest.”
But with adults beyond the Republican coalition, Trump’s position remains much more stable—and precarious.
The share of independents with a favorable view of Trump increased only from 39 percent in July to 40 percent in December in the CNN/ORC poll; in the NBC/WSJ poll, his favorable ratings among independents have declined from 23 percent in July to 18 percent in December. Only in the Quinnipiac poll has Trump’s standing improved among independents from 20 percent expressing a favorable view in May to a still meager 32 percent today. In all three polls, the share of independents expressing unfavorable views of Trump exceeds the portion rating him favorably by at least 17 percentage points.