New polls show Donald Trump strong but “race still young”

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New polling shows Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump sweeping primaries in Florida and early-vote state New Hampshire, and tying with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in South Carolina. The pollster, though, warns the “race is still young” and “there is still much room for movement for virtually all of the candidates.”

More to the point, other focus-group surveys suggest Trump “may have hit his ceiling.”

The polling of “likely” Republican voters was done this month by Associated Industries of Florida, one of the state’s premier business lobbies, for its predominantly GOP clientele. The results were obtained by FloridaPolitics.com on Tuesday.

It shows Trump leading New Hampshire with 24 percent, Florida with 29 percent, and coming neck-and-neck with Cruz in South Carolina with 27 percent each. Cruz is in second in both New Hampshire and Florida, according to the polls, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is in third in all three states.

Primaries are Feb. 9 in New Hampshire and Feb. 20 in South Carolina. Florida’s primary is March 15.

In a memo to members, however, AIF Vice President of Political Operations Ryan Tyson shakes some salt on the numbers.

“This data is a snapshot in time and only meant to detail how 2015 is ending,” he writes. “There is still plenty of time for movement within the top-tier candidates and this is evidenced by the soft image ratings of virtually every candidate we surveyed in New Hampshire and South Carolina.”

For example, Trump is the front-runner in New Hampshire, but his  ratings there break down as 24 percent “very favorable,” 25 percent “somewhat favorable,” 20 percent “somewhat unfavorable,” and 26 percent “very unfavorable.”

“The higher a candidate’s ‘very’ percentage, be it favorable or unfavorable, is a gauge of intensity,” Tyson writes. “With that in mind, the image ratings in these early states suggests there is still much room for movement for virtually all of the candidates, and we should expect the persuasion efforts to ramp up dramatically after the holidays.”

Still, he adds, the GOP race “is essentially a three-way contest between Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio.”

In all three states, “Cruz and Rubio find themselves deadlocked in a heated battle for second place, with their image numbers potentially serving as a leading indicator they could become the front-runners before too much longer.”

Rubio’s favorability numbers in New Hampshire trump Trump’s, according to the poll, with 18 percent “very favorable,” 52 percent “somewhat favorable,” 11 percent “somewhat unfavorable,” and 7 percent “very unfavorable.”

Also in the Granite State, Cruz comes in with 18 percent “very favorable,” 47 percent “somewhat favorable,” 11 percent “somewhat unfavorable,” and 8 percent “very unfavorable.”

Tyson notes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie “has made up substantial ground in New Hampshire,” with a fourth place showing of 13 percent, ahead of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush‘s 9 percent.

But Christie is dying on the vine in South Carolina and Florida, with 2 percent and 3 percent in South Carolina and Florida, respectively.

Trump, the real estate tycoon-turned-reality television star, may have attained top-dog status simply by dint of “the large field of GOP candidates,” according to a Florida focus group, Tyson adds.

“There is a deep sense of division within the Republican Party and this divide can be described as the fuel which has propelled Mr. Trump’s rise,” he says. Trump “clearly has benefited from an environment within the Republican base which expresses deep disenchantment with their elected party leaders, as well as the entire political process as a whole.”

The voters in the focus group “believed there is a profound alienation between them and their elected leaders at virtually all levels of government,” Tyson writes. “They also sensed their elected leaders have no interest in the well-being of ordinary Americans but instead perpetuate a government that increasingly disconnects from the needs of the people they serve.

“It’s clear that the candidates who best empathize with those sentiments (i.e., Trump and Cruz) will have the best starting position as the 2016 primaries begin.”

Trump’s sustained lead “is mostly a result of simple mathematics rather than his prowess as a candidate,” Tyson tells members. “After all, any candidate who is backed by 25 percent of a likely electorate will look “dominant” when (about) 65 percent of that electorate is split 12 ways and another (about) 10 percent remain undecided.”

Along with Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont, “both candidates’ extreme positions speak to an isolated, but distinct and very disenchanted, base within their respective parties,” Tyson writes.

“Do we believe Mr. Trump can still secure the GOP nomination? Possibly,” he says. “But as of today it seems there are likely alternatives … It is difficult today to envision the GOP nominating a candidate that about 40 percent of them collectively view unfavorably.”

In Florida, the organization surveyed 400 likely Republican primary voters and held a focus group on Dec. 8 in St. Petersburg, noting that “Pinellas County had the second-highest number of Republican votes cast in the 2012 Florida Presidential Preference Primary.”

After the fifth and final Republican debate of 2015, AIF surveyed 800 likely Republican primary voters in Florida this past Wednesday and Thursday.

“However, with so many states voting prior to March 15, and with two native sons in the race for the Republican nomination, we acknowledged that Florida very well could be an outlier,” Tyson writes.

“Therefore, in order to put the Florida data in proper context, we also fielded surveys in South Carolina (600 likely Republican primary voters)” on Wednesday, Dec. 16 and Thursday, Dec. 17, and polled 500 likely Republican and unaffiliated voters in New Hampshire on Thursday, Dec. 17 and Friday, Dec. 18,” he adds.

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