More than a quarter of Donald Trump's supporters would rather vote for a third-party candidate in November's general election than cast a vote for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) -- and a similar share of Cruz's supporters feel the same way about Trump.
That's according to a new NBC News/Survey Monkey poll that appears to offer evidence of a deep schism between supporters of the two leading Republican presidential candidates. But things may not be as simple as that.
Only about half of each candidate’s supporters say they would vote for the other man. Many supporters on each side say they'd vote for a third-party or independent candidate, without even knowing who that candidate might be. But there are two big reasons to be skeptical of this actually happening: November is a long way away, and voters just don’t usually support third-party candidates in large numbers. (Sorry, buddy.)
There are seven months left until the general election, and research has shown that in a normal election year, polls would already be starting to predict what November's results would be. However, nobody would describe this as a normal election year.
All 2016 general election surveys are hypothetical -- NBC uses the term “theoretical” in its write-up of this latest poll. Neither party has a presumptive nominee. In all likelihood, November's election will see either Trump or Cruz squaring off against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but there’s a lot of uncertainty on the Republican side, and it looks like the GOP will remain locked in a bitter fight until at least the beginning of June.
That presents a problem when you're asking people, especially Republican voters, to anticipate their general election vote. Trump leads in the delegate counts and in polls, but Cruz is stealthily using the party rules to his advantage and gaining delegates in some states. As long as both candidates are still competitive, there’s no incentive for anyone who supports one of them to say they’d be willing to vote for the other -- even though Cruz’s only real path to the nomination is by way of a contested convention.
The other reason to doubt that large numbers of Trump or Cruz supporters would defect from Republicans if their candidate isn’t the nominee is that Americans don’t vote for third-party candidates in large numbers -- despite stated support for third parties in polls. Now, as already noted, this is a weird election season in a lot of ways, so we can't necessarily rely on history to be our guide. Still, the pattern in recent elections is clear.
In April 2012, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked likely voters nationwide if they would consider voting for a third-party or independent candidate. Forty percent of people said they would consider it -- even though by then it was fairly clear that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) would be going up against President Barack Obama. Come November, fewer than 2 percent of voters actually voted for a non-major party candidate.
Similarly, in May 2008, when Obama and Clinton were in the midst of a protracted nomination fight, a George Washington University national poll showed that 28 percent of Clinton’s supporters said either they'd refuse to vote for Obama if he won the nomination, or they weren’t sure what they’d do. According to national exit polls, 89 percent of Democrats voted for Obama in November that year.