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Dan Gilmore / February 18, 2016

Head to Head, Both Cruz and Rubio Beat Trump

The most recent polling might indicate a shift in the GOP.

The most recent polling might indicate a shift in the Republican Party. The recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll finds that Sen. Ted Cruz now leads the GOP primary pack nationally with 28% support among primary voters. Donald Trump comes in at 26%; Sen. Marco Rubio follows with 17%. The poll was conducted after Trump swept New Hampshire and after his debate performance Saturday that garnered boos from the audience over he angrily made leftist talking points about 9/11 and Iraq.

But don’t take this poll (or any poll) as gospel. In particular, polling during primary season is notoriously unreliable. For example, the data wonks over at FiveThirtyEight still give Trump a 78% chance of winning the South Carolina Republican primary. As National Review’s Jim Geraghty noted, the NBC/WSJ poll measured a national audience, it’s the first poll to predict anyone but Trump out on top, and the margin of error is 4.9 percentage points. The gap between Cruz and Trump is only two points, so the poll really shows that the two are neck and neck.

The truly interesting question from this poll is that respondents were asked who they would support in a one-on-one matchup. Rubio beat Trump 57% to 41% and Cruz beat the real estate mogul 56% to 40%. (None of the remaining candidates beat Trump head-to-head.) For weeks, Trump has pointed to his popular poll numbers as a reason why he should get the nomination. This poll may show that support isn’t ironclad. As commentator Charles Krauthammer observed, “The reason [Trump] is way ahead and the reason it looks like a wholesale revolt is because the anti-Trump vote is so split. If it consolidates, it would beat him. The problem is it has not consolidated and the vote remains split. It may never consolidate and Trump will win the nomination.” It’s time to thin the herd for the sake of conservatism.

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