GOP Voters Have No Idea What Party Leaders Think About The Primary

The political establishment is confused, and so are rank-and-file Republicans.
Donald Trump shakes hands with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during a GOP presidential candidate debate earlier
Donald Trump shakes hands with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during a GOP presidential candidate debate earlier this month. Republican voters don't know which of the two candidates their party's leaders would prefer to nominate.

The continued polling dominance of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and businessman Donald Trump has left many Republican leaders exasperated, and rank-and-file voters pretty much clueless about who their party would rather see as the nominee.

By this point in an election cycle, voters often have a general sense of where the political establishment stands. This year, though, the Republican Party hasn't decided much of anything. As this chart from FiveThirtyEight shows, no candidate has earned anywhere near the level of support Mitt Romney had gained before the Iowa caucus in 2012, or John McCain in 2008. Cruz so far has picked up fewer than two dozen endorsements, all from House representatives, while Trump hasn't been backed by anyone from the House or Senate, or by any of the nation's governors.

So perhaps it's not surprising that, when asked whether party leaders would prefer a Trump or Cruz victory, Republican and Republican-leaning voters had no idea. 

In a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, 38 percent thought most political leaders in the Republican Party would prefer Cruz to Trump, while a near-identical 36 percent thought the opposite.

Republican voters, who prefer outsider candidates over establishment ones by a 2-to-1 margin, aren't exactly apt to be wooed by a candidate's insider cred. But even if they were to look to the party for guidance on choosing between the two, they wouldn't find much of it.

The establishment's antipathy to Trump is widespread and well-known. However, recent stories from The Washington Post and The Associated Press have suggested the GOP establishment is grudgingly coming to terms with Trump as an alternative to Cruz, who they worry could hurt their chances of winning other races in 2016

"Without any clear signals from the party elites, how could anyone know what they want?" political scientist Hans Noel said in an email. "[P]eople are getting mixed messages."  

The lack of strong party signaling isn't limited to Trump and Cruz. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), often floated as the strongest establishment option, has gotten only tepid official support from his party. While GOP voters have generally picked up on the idea that the party would prefer Rubio to his outsider rivals, they say so by a relatively narrow margin: 20 points over Cruz, and 19 over Trump.

The Democratic primary draws a striking contrast. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds a record number of political endorsements -- and regardless of whether they support her, voters have gotten the message that she's the establishment favorite. Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters say by a 50-point margin that most political leaders would favor her over Sanders.

Trump's continued success has led to a debate on the strength of both the Republican Party and broader political science theories about the way parties influence nominations, none of which are likely to be resolved before the end of the primary. What's already clear, though, is that GOP voters aren't simply ignoring their party's messages -- they're not even sure what it's saying.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Jan. 23-25 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls.You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be foundhere. More details on the polls' methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov's reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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