American political parties once nominated candidates who enjoyed a broad range of support within their own party. For example, William Seward easily defeated second-place finisher Abraham Lincoln on the first ballot at the 1860 Republican National Convention, but Seward fell short of a majority. When it became clear that no other candidate had the votes to get the needed majority and the choice would come down to Seward or Lincoln, many delegates switched their votes to Lincoln, who had broader appeal. That switch, most would agree, proved fortuitous for the country.
Nowadays, pollsters tend to ask which candidate is a respondent’s first choice. Asking that question at the 1860 GOP convention would have shown Seward to be well ahead of Lincoln, but such a question doesn’t really gauge a candidate’s breadth of support. Our nomination process today is somewhat like the first ballot at a convention, often producing nominees who are far from consensus choices even within their own party. That’s one reason why Jay Cost and I have argued for a new nomination process, based upon how the Constitution was ratified. It should, and to some extent still does, matter whether a candidate would be acceptable to most members of a party, rather than merely being the first choice of a subset of the party’s membership.
In that spirit, the American Main Street Initiative, which I run, recently commissioned a poll question asking likely voters of both parties, “Which person are you hoping will NOT win your party’s nomination for president?” For independents, the question was phrased a bit differently: “Who are you hoping will NOT be nominated by either party for president?” Echelon Insights conducted the polling (of 1,022 likely voters) between August 28 and August 31, shortly after the first Republican presidential debate. The question was open-ended; respondents could offer any name they liked.
The answers were revealing. The person whom Republicans most often said they hope will not win their party’s nomination is Chris Christie. The person whom Democrats most often said they hope will not win their party’s nomination is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The person independents most often said they hope will not win either party’s nomination is Donald Trump, followed very closely by Joe Biden.
Among Republican voters (and excluding those who, among other things, gave multiple names, were unsure, or listed a Democrat), 35 percent listed Christie as the person they hope won’t win the party’s nomination, 26 percent listed Trump, and 21 percent listed Mike Pence. No other Republican was in double-digits.
Among Democrats, 54 percent of those surveyed listed Kennedy and 30 percent listed Biden, with most of the rest saying either Marianne Williamson (6 percent) or Kamala Harris (6 percent).
Among independents (including those who aren’t members of either major party or aren’t sure of their party affiliation), 39 percent listed Trump as the person they hope won’t be nominated, while 37 percent listed Biden. Ron DeSantis was a distant third, at 14 percent.
(Interestingly, the less money independents made, the more likely they were to hope that Biden wouldn’t be nominated—42 percent of independents making under $75,000 listed him as the person they hoped wouldn’t win, while only 23 percent of those making over $125,000 said the same.)
Combining these results with respondents’ answers about which candidate they support yields a fuller picture of the race. Including Republican-leaning independents with Republicans, and Democratic-leaning independents with Democrats, I have compiled candidates’ respective results from the polling, showing how many respondents (among those who gave a name) said they support each candidate for his party’s nomination, and how many listed him as the person they hope would not win their party’s nomination.
Among likely voters who are, or lean, Republican, here are the results:
Donald Trump: 55 percent support him for the nomination; 27 percent hope he doesn’t win the nomination.
Ron DeSantis: 16 percent support him; 8 percent hope he doesn’t win.
Vivek Ramaswamy: 13 percent support him; 4 percent hope he doesn’t win.
Mike Pence: 6 percent support him; 20 percent hope he doesn’t win.
Nikki Haley: 4 percent support her; 4 percent hope she doesn’t win.
Chris Christie: 4 percent support him; 35 percent hope he doesn’t win.
Others (combined): 3 percent support them; 2 percent hope they don’t win.
Among likely voters who are, or lean, Democratic, here are the results:
Joe Biden: 71 percent support him; 32 percent hope he doesn’t win (these numbers add up to more than 100 percent because some respondents curiously said that they support Biden and hope he doesn’t win).
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: 16 percent support him; 52 percent hope he doesn’t win.
Marianne Williamson: 7 percent support her; 6 percent hope she doesn’t win.
Others: 6 percent support them; 10 percent hope they don’t win (with most of these 10 percent listing Kamala Harris as the person they don’t want to win).
Several things stand out from these results. For starters, it’s not only independents who aren’t thrilled about a potential Biden–Trump rematch. More than a quarter of each party’s own voters list the respective frontrunner as the person they hope will not win that party’s nomination.
Another thing that stands out—albeit somewhat unsurprisingly—is how much Republican-leaning voters are polarized over Trump. With 55 percent supporting him and 27 percent naming him as the person they hope doesn’t win, there aren’t many people remaining who view him relatively neutrally. By comparison, a wide swath of GOP-leaning voters hold more neutral views about DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Nikki Haley (neither supporting them nor hoping they don’t win).
The numbers strongly suggest that the GOP electorate is decidedly populist and anti-establishment. Among those with more than 1 percent support, the only three candidates with a higher percentage rooting for them than against them are Trump, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy—each of whom has at least twice as many people rooting for him as against him.
Also striking is the opposition among Republicans to candidates who have positioned themselves, or have been positioned by others, as being most at odds with Trump—namely, Christie and Pence. More than three times the percentage of Republican-leaning voters are rooting against those candidates as for them—almost ten times as many in Christie’s case.
In a sense, Democratic-leaning voters are even more polarized over Biden than Republican-leaning voters are over Trump, with about 70 percent of Democrats pulling for Biden and about 30 percent hoping he doesn’t win—and a few even pulling in both directions at once.
Looking at the current second-place candidate for each party, DeSantis and Kennedy are each supported by 16 percent of their respective party’s voters. But 52 percent of Democratic-leaning respondents hope Kennedy doesn’t win, while only 8 percent of Republican-leaning respondents hope DeSantis doesn’t win—a colossal difference. These numbers suggest that, even as he trails Trump by a wide margin, DeSantis could potentially become a consensus candidate among Republicans, while Kennedy’s positioning among Democrats is more akin to Christie’s among Republicans.
The poll also indicates that likely voters hardly think it is “morning in America.” By more than a three-to-one margin, they say that the U.S. is heading in the wrong (69 percent) rather than right (22 percent) direction, and that America’s economic situation is getting worse (65 percent), not better (18 percent). Biden is 16 points underwater in terms of job approval (41 percent approving, 57 percent disapproving) and 21 points underwater in his handling of the economy (38 percent approving, 59 percent disapproving). By more than a two-to-one margin (61 percent to 25 percent), likely voters don’t want Biden to run. (There was no corresponding question for Trump.)
Interestingly, voters listed “cost of living” as their “biggest issue” (23 percent), with 41 percent ranking it among the top two issues. Other issues listed among many respondents’ priorities were “jobs and the economy” (#2, with 27 percent listing it among the top two issues), “political corruption” (#3, at 22 percent), and immigration (#4, at 19 percent), all of which beat out “the environment and climate change” (#5, at 17 percent). Tellingly, far fewer voters found a spot in their top two for a favorite Republican issue (“taxes,” which cracked the top two for only 3 percent), a favorite Democratic issue (“race relations,” at 6 percent), or an issue that Democrats are counting on helping them politically (“abortion,” 9 percent).
Perhaps most intriguingly, voters seem to agree with Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Address that America faces much greater threats from within than from without. While domestic concerns (costs, jobs, corruption) took the top three spots, “national security” barely cracked the top 10, with just 7 percent listing it as a top-two issue.
The good news for Democrats is that, despite such numbers, which would normally sink an incumbent, their party is essentially even both in a prospective rematch of the two frontrunners (with Trump leading Biden by just 1 point—46 percent to 45 percent) and in the generic congressional ballot (with Republicans leading Democrats by just 2 points—46 percent to 44 percent).
These numbers contain lessons for both camps. For Democrats, voters’ widespread dissatisfaction suggests that the main thing preventing a strong political backlash is Trump’s unpopularity with independents. For Trump supporters, a third consecutive nomination now looks likely, with Biden’s unpopularity—and perhaps more broadly Democrats’ unpopularity—making a second Trump term quite plausible.
For establishment Republicans, the GOP electorate doesn’t appear to be buying what they’re selling. For DeSantis and Ramaswamy (to the extent the latter is really running for the top office rather than just for a place on the ticket), and perhaps Haley (whom the polling suggests is better-positioned than Pence, Christie, or Tim Scott), they have a long way to go to catch Trump and clearly aren’t going to get there by playing it safe. On the race’s current trajectory, Trump looks poised to win the nomination easily.
That’s true even though more independents are rooting against his winning the Republican nomination than are rooting against any other candidate in either party. It’s also true even though Trump is second only to Christie in the number of Republicans who hope he doesn’t win the party’s nomination.
This race has a long way to go, with more than three months until the first votes are cast. But right now, the very thing that so many voters hope won’t happen—a 2020 rematch—looks to be the most likely scenario. If that does transpire, it will have been the voters’ choice.
Photos, left to right: Mario Tama/Getty Images, Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference, Sean Rayford/Getty Images, Scott Eisen/Getty Images for SiriusXM