Texans' Ratings of Potential Future Presidents Portend More Conflict for GOP

With citizens in 13 states, including Texas, voting today in the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, many are expecting the particulars of the nominating races to become a lot clearer by later this evening – or at the very least, by early tomorrow morning – to the delight and, depending on the outcome, chagrin of many in both parties. While there's no shortage of sub-narratives and important secondary questions to be poured over in the days and weeks ahead (including in this very blog), the overarching questions for each party are rather simple.

For  Democrats, will Hillary Clinton's Southern "firewall" materialize, increasing her delegate lead while possibly foreclosing the pathway to a Sanders nomination? For Republicans, will Trump continue his recent string of successes, and with it, his chances of becoming the likely Republican nominee? If today does portend the eventual outcome, the most important follow-up questions are whether, given the fervency of Sanders' supporters, Clinton can count on them in the general election should she be the nominee this Fall? Likewise, can Trump expect GOP voters to back his...unorthodox...candidacy should he become the Republican's standard bearer?

Election day is a long ways off, and the primary season still has a number of contests remaining. To provide a means of looking at these questions even as the outcomes are being determined, the February 2016 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll asked Texas voters whether, in their opinion, each of the major candidates would make a great, good, average, terrible, or poor president if elected. Without looking at the data, one might assume that voters in both parties universally rate their choices as great future presidents, while rating the alternatives as terrible, poor, or at the very least simply average. Yet things are not so clear cut. 

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Ted Cruz37%
Donald J. Trump29%
Marco Rubio14%
Jeb Bush6%
Ben Carson5%
John R. Kasich5%
Rand Paul2%
Carly Fiorina1%
Elizabeth Gray1%
Rick Santorum1%
Chris Christie0%
Lindsey Graham0%
Mike Huckabee0%

Since this is Texas, let's begin with the Republicans. Not surprisingly, home state Senator Ted Cruz led the Republican Primary trial ballot with 37 percent of likely GOP Primary voters. Cruz was followed by national front-runner Donald Trump, who garnered 29 percent of the vote, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio coming in third with 14 percent of the vote (a number likely to increase with the exit of Jeb! Bush). Given Cruz's lead, the fact that he's already won a statewide election here, and his overall popularity amongst the GOP, it's not surprising that 58 percent of Republicans think he would make a great or good president. Cruz faired even better amongst the state's most conservative elements, with a majority of those describing themselves as 'extremely conservative' (about 27 percent of the likely GOP primary electorate) rating Cruz as a "great" potential president, and 45 percent of Tea Party Republicans agreeing.

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Great president2%6%27%
Good president6%13%31%
Average president14%18%18%
Poor president18%13%9%
Terrible president52%37%11%
Don't know7%12%4%

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categoryLeaning conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Great president8%25%51%
Good president28%34%27%
Average president22%23%10%
Poor president19%9%2%
Terrible president19%5%8%
Don't know4%3%3%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Great president2%17%45%
Good president5%30%25%
Average president11%21%15%
Poor president16%15%5%
Terrible president59%13%9%
Don't know7%3%1%

So how does Cruz compare in the lone star state to his chief rivals? Despite Trump's 14 point lead over Rubio in the primary trial ballot, Republicans overall rate the two somewhat similarly as potential presidents. Forty-two percent of Texas Republicans think that Trump would be a good or great president, with the rest distributed across the remaining categories. For Rubio, 39 percent think he would be great or good, though a larger share think he would be good compared to great than for Trump.

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Great president3%16%18%
Good president5%13%24%
Average president9%11%17%
Poor president12%13%13%
Terrible president67%41%22%
Don't know3%6%6%

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Great president2%3%10%
Good president8%11%29%
Average president26%34%31%
Poor president26%22%14%
Terrible president28%14%7%
Don't know11%16%9%

But the real issue that has caused consternation within the GOP is the fear that none of the three front-runners will be able to unify the party come general election time. In particular, will the infighting (to understate the case), turn one candidate's voters off from another in an irreparable way? Not surprisingly, likely Republican Primary voters view their choices as good ones, 77 percent of Rubio voters think that he would be a great or good president, a sentiment echoed by 84 percent of Trump voters when asked about Trump, and by 96 percent of Cruz voters when asked about Cruz. But the fear among Republicans is not how the voters feel about their own choices, but how they are likely to feel about the eventual nominee should it be someone else – in particular, should Trump wrest the nomination from GOP stakeholders. While Sens. Cruz and Rubio have been in conflict for a while in an attempt to establish themselves as the alternative to Trump, their respective voters don't seem to look upon the other with too much scorn. Forty-one percent of Cruz voters think that Rubio would be a great or good president, 38 percent think he would be average, and 21 percent think he would be poor or terrible. Likewise, 40 percent of Rubio voters think that Cruz would be great or good, 20 percent think average, and the remaining 40 percent poor or terrible – so at worst, they're ambivalent. But when it comes to Trump, 48 percent of Rubio's voters and 45 percent of Cruz's voters think he make a poor or terrible president (with only 27 percent of each's voters, respectively, saying Trump would make a great or good president). Herein lies part of the fear of GOP elites when faced with the prospects of a Trump candidacy: not only might he turn off large swaths of growing segments of the electorate, but he might turn off Republican voters as well.  This problem loom particularly large in an era in which electoral tactics have increasingly focused on mobilization and turnout over persuasion.

For the Democrats, things are not nearly so complicated: 64 percent think that Hillary Clinton would make a great or good president, 52 percent think the same of Sanders. But more importantly, among Sanders voters, 92 percent of whom think he would make a great or good president, a majority think the same of Clinton, and only a fifth think she would be terrible or poor. Among Clinton supporters, among whom 88 percent think she would be great or good, only 19 percent think Sanders would make a poor or terrible president, the rest saying that he would be average (35 percent) or great or good (38 percent).

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Great president29%4%1%
Good president35%9%3%
Average president23%26%6%
Poor president5%9%8%
Terrible president4%45%79%
Don't know3%7%3%

In the end, Clinton's viewpoints and policy prescriptions are going to be closer to Bernie Sanders Democrats than any of the GOP nominees, making a turn away from Clinton highly unlikely in such a charged election year. A Trump nomination – like so many other facets of his candidacy – would create its own unique set of problems for the Republican Party as it seeks to regain the presidency. But as GOP elites belatedly accept the reality of Trump's presence as the de facto front runner in the nomination race, we've seen endorsements from those looking to jump on his bandwagon: Chris Christie will not be the last surprising figure making a deal with Trump. Even as the Lindsay Grahams of the world continue to colorfully refuse to join the Trump parade, enough figures are likely to defect to Trump to calm the fears/disgust of at least some remaining skeptics in the GOP electorate, who in the event of a Trump nomination will follow the party flag in the eternal battle against Hillary Clinton. But no one who has been following these contests should be surprised that the process of coming together for the general election will require much more reconciliation among Republicans than among Democrats.