Sunday, February 25

Ohio win may obscure the mixed bag of Trump’s primary strength

Donald Trump notched his first win of the 2022 primary season with J.D. Vance emerging from a scramble of Ohio candidates for U.S. Senate. There is no question Vance would be back to the lecture circuit without Trump’s endorsement. But Trump’s success comes with important qualifications.

Vance was a struggling until the Trump endorsement. The last poll before Trump’s pronouncement had Vance at just 11 percent, trailing Mike Gibbons (22 percent) and Josh Mandel (20 percent). Post-endorsement, Vance jumped into second place in the April 14 Trafalgar poll at 23 percent to Mandel’s 28 percent. Vance continued to slowly gain voters, ending at 26 percent in the final pre-primary poll. On Election Day, Vance picked up most of the remaining undecideds, finishing with 32.2 percent, beating Mandel (23.9 percent) and Matt Dolan (23.3 percent).

On the positive side for Trump, he got a win and the headlines. But that victory is tempered by the fact that Vance got less than a third of the vote in a crowded field. Considering that Vance was likely to pick up a least a smattering of undecideds, Trump’s endorsement seems to have been worth about 20 points.

From the pre-endorsement poll, 28 percent were undecided. By Election Day, Mandel gained 4 points and Dolan picked up over 16 points, while Mike Gibbons (down 10.4 points) and Jane Timken (down 3.1 points) lost ground. Vance’s win essentially came from grabbing about 70 percent of the undecideds. The Trump endorsement did not take away anything from Mandel or Dolan — it just put a ceiling on them.

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Meanwhile in the gubernatorial primary, incumbent Republican Gov. Mike DeWine — who has a barely concealed loathing for Trump (and it’s mutual) — cruised to a primary win by over 20-points over ultra-Trumper Jim Renacci. DeWine was held under 50 percent — but using the same “a win is a win” calculus as Trump, he was a huge winner, and more so than Vance.

As in 2016, Trump is more than a little lucky. The Republican primary calendar is favorable to him. Among the key primary states of Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Trump gets a big break with Ohio, his best state of the bunch in 2020, going first. Meanwhile, the worst state for Trump, Georgia, goes last. Trump gets the chance to build momentum in Ohio for the later primaries.

The next two tests for Trump are more uncertain. In North Carolina’s U.S. Senate primary, Trump favorite Ted Budd has managed to pull ahead of former Gov. Pat McCrory by 10-points in the April 10 SurveyUSA poll (which is a bit dated). However, Budd has yet to poll above 38 percent.

Pennsylvania is not nearly as good for Trump. His endorsement of celebrity TV star Dr. Oz has pushed Oz to the lead among a scrum of candidates, but the gain has not been nearly as dramatic as the Vance improvement in Ohio. Prior to the Trump endorsement, the Free Beacon poll had hedge fund manager David McCormick in the lead at 25 percent to 19 percent for Oz, and Fox News had McCormick up 24 percent to 15 percent.

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In the wake of the Trump endorsement, the Trafalgar poll puts Oz ahead 23 percent to 20 percent for McCormick, giving Oz a Trump boost of — at most — 8 points. Even worse, Oz is still behind his showing in the February Trafalgar poll by 4 points. It may be that it takes time for the Trump effect to bake in and that Ohio will help. But the barely discernible boost for Oz is a bad sign. Note: I did not cite the Emerson poll nor the Franklin & Marshall College poll as neither had a sample size over the bare minimum for any validity (600).

Trump could still sweep the key Senate races. Only the Georgia governor’s race looks to be trouble, with incumbent governor and Trump bete noire Brian Kemp up 16 points over Trump-endorsed David Perdue. And this putative scorecard shows an important strength that Trump has: The non-Trump candidates are a fractured lot with no main opposition. Just like in 2016, those opposing Trump (or the Trump candidates) are chopping up the independent Republican voters.

Vance won with a mere 32 percent. Oz could win with a similar total. Ted Budd looks in better shape to actually hit 50 percent, but he is not there yet. In the only one-on-one race — in Georgia — the non-endorsed candidate is far ahead. Trump benefited in 2016 from multiple candidates strong enough to stay in but not strong enough to win.

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In a party where the opposition to Trump is halting, temporizing and uncertain, Trump can keep control simply by being aggressive and focused on himself.

But that control cannot mask the fact that GOP voters are not automatically going to follow Trump wherever he goes. When you get past the opinion polls and get to what counts — the voting polls — the loyal Trumpists look like perhaps 20 percent of Republican voters.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

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