Unless something changes dramatically in the Republican presidential primary contest in the next few months, accepting the party’s nomination at the national convention in Cleveland this July is likely to be the high-water mark for whichever of the two leading candidates gets the party’s nod.
Billionaire Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are the only two candidates with a mathematical chance of securing enough delegates to win the nomination outright. If neither does, both will still arrive in Cleveland with such large shares of the overall delegate pool that denying one of them the nomination would throw the GOP into turmoil.
So, it’s most likely that either Trump or Cruz will be the nominee, and from a purely practical point of view that’s horrible news for the GOP. Because, as a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows, both of them are very unpopular with the American public at large. Not only are they unpopular, they are also getting more unpopular as time goes on.
That means that the GOP faces nearly two more months of highly contentious primaries ahead, which will almost certainly be contested to the last day, followed by more than a month of wrangling before what could be an explosive nominating convention in July.
When it’s all over, the last man standing will have a little over three months to remake himself as a plausible general election candidate. That’s a short time to win over a lot of hearts and minds.
Things are particularly bad for Trump. Though he has won more than twice as many states as Cruz and holds a substantial 220-delegate lead at this point, he has managed that by motivating a relatively narrow slice of the American electorate. It’s been enough to earn him plurality victories in Republican primaries, but taken out of that rarefied environment, Trump is a PR disaster.
The poll finds that 67 percent of US adults hold an unfavorable opinion of Trump, and that 53 percent say that their opinion of him is “strongly unfavorable.” Worse still, his numbers have been getting worse as the campaign goes on. His total unfavorables, as low as (a still terrible) 59 in November, rose to 62 in January before spiking to 67 in March and April.
Among self-identified Republicans, he barely manages a net favorable rating, with just 53 percent saying they have a positive opinion of their party’s frontrunner.
If Trump weren’t so staggeringly unpopular, we’d likely be hearing more about Cruz’s struggles with the general public’s perception of him. The Texas senator has a net disapproval rating of 53 percent, with 33 percent of respondents saying that they “strongly” disapprove of him.
And, like Trump, things aren’t getting better for Cruz as people get to know him better. In May of last year, he had a combined unfavorable rating of 38, but 37 percent of the population said they didn’t know him well enough to form a judgment. Now, only 11 percent of the population has no opinion of Cruz, and while some appear to have found they like him -- driving his combined approval up from 25 to 36 -- most appear to have decided they don’t like him, with the unfavorable moving from 38 to 53.
The ironic thing about Trump and Cruz struggling so badly with the public’s impression of them is that they are battling to take on a likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, who is also broadly unpopular with the public at large. Clinton has a disapproval rating of about 56 percent, though her approval numbers of 40 percent are higher than those of either Trump or Cruz, both of whom she beats easily in hypothetical matchups.
The only Republican candidate in the race who beats Clinton head-to-head is the one getting the least attention from the voters. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has equal approval and disapproval ratings, both at 39 in the Washington Post/ABC News poll. Kasich, though, cannot mathematically win the nomination on the basis of his primary performance, so his only road to the nomination at this point is a contested convention in which the vast majority of voters who are supporting either Trump or Cruz come away not only disappointed but probably quite angry.