The 2016 Republican nomination contest is over. Donald Trump stands alone. This has surprised pundits, political scientists, and journalists alike. But why is it surprising that a candidate who led the race from July 2015 is going to be the Republican nominee?
Talk of a Trump “ceiling” was rampant from the time that he entered the GOP contest. His ceiling was 25 percent; later it was 30 percent; and then later it was 40 percent. Obviously, for many political observers, it was inevitable that the anti-Trump vote would coalesce around one of his opponents. However, as we saw with the abortive John Kasich–Ted Cruz alliance prior to the Indiana primary on May 3, it was impossible for even two of Trump’s opponents to coordinate their attacks on the front-runner. But even with a more successful effort at coordination much earlier during the campaign, it is very unlikely that Trump could have been stopped.
To explain Trump’s inevitability we need survey data from the early primary period with matchups of all candidates against Trump one-on-one. A survey asking only about first choices is not useful, since in a fourteen-candidate race no one is likely to achieve majority status. Fortunately, we have data to address this question.
In order to understand the Trump phenomenon, we commissioned YouGov to carry out a Web-based survey of a national sample of 1,000 Republicans and independents. Of this initial sample, 688 respondents identified themselves as certain to vote in a Republican primary. The surveys were carried out during the two weeks surrounding the Iowa caucuses in early February but results from those interviewed before and after the caucuses were almost identical.
We asked our respondents to rank the eleven major candidates in the GOP race at the time of the Iowa caucuses: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and Trump. Remarkably almost everyone ranked all eleven candidates, so our data allow us to address the potential for Trump opponent coordination.
At the time of our survey Trump had already broken through the 25 percent, 30 percent, and 35 percent ceilings that had supposedly limited his support. Slightly over a third (36.5 percent) of likely Republican voters rated him as their top choice, followed by Cruz and Rubio. Nonetheless he was still far short of the majority support that pundits thought he would need when the race came down to a two-person contest.
Based on respondents’ rankings of the eleven candidates, we were able to determine whether any other candidate would have been able to defeat Trump in a one-on-one contest. The answer was “no.” As the results in Figure 1 show, no candidate finished ahead of Trump, and only one, Cruz, even came within 10 percentage points of Trump.
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