Public Policy Polling: Trump ahead in SC by diminished margin; Clinton dominant

Public Policy Polling’s newest South Carolina poll finds Donald Trump continuing to lead in the state, but that he’s lost about a third of his support since peaking in early September. Trump gets 25% to 21% for Ben Carson, 15% for Ted Cruz, 13% for Marco Rubio, 8% for Jeb Bush, and 5% for Carly Fiorina. No one else gets more than 3% in the Palmetto State- John Kasich hits that mark followed by Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, and Rand Paul all at 2%, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum at 1%, and Jim Gilmore, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki all at less than 1%. There’s a big gender gap with Carson leading Trump 27/19 among women, but Trump leading Carson by an even greater 31/15 margin with men.

Although he’s still out front Trump’s standing has declined a good bit from September- he’s dropped 12 points from when he led with 37% on our poll then. His overall popularity with the Republican base has declined from then as well- he’d had a 64/28 favorability rating, but that’s dropped down now to 53/33. It’s possible the field will have seen some winnowing by the time the race gets to South Carolina and that’s boding a lot less well for Trump now too. In September we found he led Marco Rubio 58/35 in a head to head match up and trailed Ben Carson only 46/45.  Now he can achieve only a tie with Rubio at 46%, and his deficit to Carson is up to 51/38. He also ties Ted Cruz 44/44 in a head to head- the one he does still dominate is against Jeb Bush where he’s up 57/32.

Ben Carson’s campaign spent last week dealing with all sorts of controversies and the total effect on his standing in South Carolina appears to be…nothing. Carson’s 21% standing in South Carolina is exactly what we found when we polled the state two months ago. And his 69/17 favorability rating continues to make him by far and away the most broadly liked candidate in the state, with Rubio coming closest to him on that front at 60/22. Voters just don’t care that much about Carson’s recent controversies- 65% say that Carson’s violent youth, ‘including stabbing a friend and trying to hit his mother over the head with a hammer’ doesn’t make a difference to them one way or another with 9% saying it makes them more likely to vote for him and 22% less likely. Voters don’t agree with Carson’s interpretation of what the pyramids were used for- only 7% think they were for storing grain to 75% who think they were used to bury the dead and 3% who think they were used by aliens- but it’s not like that ‘issue’ is costing him support.

The only two candidates with any sort of momentum in South Carolina are Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both of whom are up 9 points from our September poll. Cruz has gone from 6% to 15%, and has seen a 10 point gain in his net favorability rating from +25 (52/27) to +35 (57/22). Cruz is leading the GOP field in South Carolina among voters whose biggest concern is having a candidate who’s conservative on the issues (28% to 23% for Carson and 21% for Trump) as well as among Tea Party voters (32% to 27% for Trump and 18% for Carson). Rubio’s gone up from 4% to 13%, and has seen a 14 point improvement in his net favorability from +24 (53/29) to +38 (60/22). Rubio’s the second most popular of the GOP hopefuls in South Carolina and also the second most frequent second choice at 14%, behind just Carson who’s second choice for 19%. All of those metrics make Rubio a likely beneficiary if anything ever does cause Trump and Carson’s support to come crashing down.

The picture for Lindsey Graham in South Carolina has just gotten worse. There was never much of a base of support for his campaign- we found him polling at 13% in February- but now he’s all the way down to 2%. 84% of Republican primary voters in his home state now think he should drop out, to just 11% who think he should continue his campaign. And he’s squandered a lot of the goodwill he had managed to build up with the GOP base over the last few years. In February, coming off a primary challenge last year where he did surprisingly well, we found 54% of Republicans approved of the job he was doing to 29% who disapproved. Now only 38% approve to 49% who disapprove, for a net 35 point decline. The Presidential campaign is badly hurting his image on the home front.

The news isn’t good for Jeb Bush either. He led South Carolina with 19% in February. Now he’s in 5th place at 8%, but more importantly voters don’t seem to be buying his relaunch. Only 26% agree that ‘Jeb can fix it’ to 55% who say they think he can’t. Those numbers are a function of his overall unpopularity with the GOP base in the state- just 36% see him favorably to 46% who have a negative view of him. He continues to particularly have credibility issues on the right- only 4% of ‘very conservative’ voters support him and his favorability with them is 32/49.

Finally there’s a group of candidates whose support for the nomination hasn’t fluctuated much over the last couple months in South Carolina, but whose image has. Leading that group is Chris Christie whose favorability has gone up by a whooping 42 points, from -27 at 28/55 to +15 at 44/29. Also with a big improvement is Rand Paul who’s gone from -24 at 28/52 to break even at 37/37. Christie and Paul were both badly bruised by the first debate but have seen a great deal of improvement in their numbers since then. Headed in the wrong direction is John Kasich, who was already unpopular at 27/34 and is now more unpopular at 23/40. We’re just not finding him catching on beyond New Hampshire. Carly Fiorina’s on the down swing as well from 54/22 to now 49/26.

On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton continues to be dominant, getting 72% to 18% for Bernie Sanders, and 5% for Martin O’Malley.  In September Clinton led Sanders 66/12 in a Biden-less field, so her 54 point advantage on Sanders has remained steady. Clinton’s up big with every segment of the Democratic electorate but what’s most notable are the numbers with African Americans- she gets 86% to 11% for Sanders and 1% for O’Malley. Those numbers really speak to the trouble Sanders may have in states beyond Iowa and New Hampshire that have considerably more diverse primary electorates. Clinton is also polling over 70% with liberals, women, men, and seniors while getting over 60% with moderates and younger voters. Her weaker groups, comparatively, are whites where she leads 56/25 and non-Democrats where she leads Sanders only 40/37. Those self identified Republicans and independents are the only thing keeping the race even within 60 points- among actual Democrats Clinton’s up  79/14.

Rachel Maddow’s forum in South Carolina last Friday looks to have been a success- 32% of Democratic primary voters in the state say they watched it. It mostly reinforced Clinton’s front runner status in the state- 67% who watched declared her to be the winner to 16% for Sanders and 6% for O’Malley. And although forum viewers said it made them view all three candidates more positively Clinton (61% more positive, 14% less positive) came out ahead of both Sanders (51/11) and O’Malley (38/18) on that metric as well.

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