Republican Activists Increasingly Favor Outsider Candidates

Is this election an anomaly, or will the party restore its grip on the nomination process?

The most politically active Republicans -- those who participate in politics and follow it most closely -- now look remarkably like the rest of their party in their affinity for a trio of candidates with nontraditional backgrounds, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll of activist Republicans conducted in late September.

To many observers of national polls, the recent rise in support for nontraditional candidates like Trump, Carson and Fiorina raises important questions: Have Republican party leaders lost control of their nomination process? Will this election be a break from the past or do the old rules -- which seemed to preclude candidates with little or no prior political experience -- still apply?

Political scientists and pundits debate the degree to which the party establishment influences the presidential nomination process. Some claim that very senior party leaders and interest groups coordinate to choose a leader, while others argue the establishment sometimes fails to reach consensus and ultimately ratifies the choice made by voters in early primary states. But all agree that no elections in the modern era produced "a nominee as alien to the party establishment as Donald Trump (or Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, or even Bernie Sanders)," as Vox's Andrew Prokop put it.

To better understand the "invisible primary" among party insiders, The Huffington Post has been working with our survey partner YouGov to scour its Internet survey panel for activist Republicans: those who have run for or held office, served as party officials, worked on campaigns or volunteered their time before elections. Our second survey of 500 of these activists provides a look at the opinions of some of the GOP's best-informed and most politically involved supporters. (The first was conducted in July; we also sampled a second wave of Democratic activists and will report on those findings separately.)

The Republican activists surveyed remain far from a consensus on a 2016 nominee. Just 55 percent now say they "have a good idea" of who they will vote for in next year's nomination fight, up only slightly from our July survey, when they made up 48 percent. Almost as many (45 percent) say they're still making up their minds. However, virtually all can identify a first or second choice -- and the number of candidates in that top tier has increased over the summer.

Outsiders Lead

As in many of the recent polls surveying all Republican voters, Donald Trump leads as the activists' first choice (at 23 percent), followed by Cruz, Carson, Fiorina and Rubio, all clustered in the mid-teens. When first and second choice are combined, however, Carson and Fiorina move slightly ahead of Trump and Cruz.

These findings are not necessarily an indicator of the views of the much wider Republican primary electorate, much less a prediction who will win the Republican nomination. As HuffPost has reported previously, presidential primary polls are notorious for projecting early leaders who fade long before the early primaries. The opinions and preferences of activists, like ordinary voters, can and do change.

Case in point: Our previous Republican activist survey in July showed Gov. Scott Walker leading the field, with more than a third choosing him as either their first (18 percent) or second (16 percent) choice. Yet following poorly reviewed debate performances and lackluster fundraising, Walker dropped out of the race. Since July, Walker's overall favorable rating dropped from 79 to 65 percent and the number who rate him very favorably plummeted 32 points (from 54 to 22 percent).

As in many of the public polls, first-choice support for Donald Trump has increased since July (from 12 to 23 percent), and the activists are much more likely to see Trump as electable and acceptable to all Republicans than they were in early July.

Beyond that, however, the numbers continue to support the argument that Trump is a "factional" candidate, one who draws intense support from a portion of the party but will struggle to build support beyond it. While a majority of activists (59 percent) rate Trump favorably, 40 percent rate him unfavorably. And despite a significant improvement since July, just 40 percent think he appeals to most Republicans. More to the point, there are more Republican activists who say they could never support Trump (28 percent) or say they would be angry if he were nominated (27 percent) than support him, and Trump's second choice support (7 percent) ranks behind the other top tier candidates.

The antipathy toward Trump among his Republican detractors is so strong that many would like to see others quit the race in order to defeat him. A 51 percent majority of activists who support a candidate besides Trump say they'd like to see other politicians follow Scott Walker, who announced he was bowing out "so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive conservative alternative to the frontrunner."

Even as Trump continues to divide the party, GOP activists have awarded Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina with rapidly growing popularity and support. Eighty-five percent of activists now view Carson favorably (up 8 percentage points since July), while 76 percent give positive marks to Fiorina (up 6 points).

Unlike Trump, Carson and Fiorina are singled out for opposition by only a handful. Just 13 percent of the activists say they couldn't support Fiorina, while only 8 percent wouldn't back Carson. The only politician to score equally well is Ted Cruz, whom just 11 percent would never support.

While no one without prior political experience has won a presidential nomination since Wendell Willkie in 1940 -- and no U.S. president has ever been elected without having previously held at least a high level position in government or the military -- a majority of the activists also have acquired faith in Carson and Fiorina's ability to win. Fifty-nine percent think either candidate is capable of clinching the Republican nomination, and just over half think either could eventually be president.

Similarly, the two now join Marco Rubio as the candidates judged "acceptable to most Republicans" by more than half of activists. For both Carson and Fiorina, the viability and acceptability scores represent large double-digit increases since July.

The rise of Carson, Fiorina and Trump, which comes against a backdrop of widespread Republican disaffection with their party and its leaders, is ammunition for those who believe the establishment has lost its grip on the nomination process. Arguments about the party's veto powers, however, are predicated on the notion that the establishment is monolithically opposed to those candidates.

That degree of opposition is no longer a given. While the real party establishment might very well feel that way, it is to a large extent staying out of the race, offering far fewer endorsements than in past election cycles. In our survey, the surrounding strata of GOP activists, local officials and campaign professionals join the rest of their party in failing to embrace more traditional candidates. Like rank-and-file Republicans, many of the activists gravitate toward the outsider candidates and believe that they have a significant chance of winning.

While Carson, Fiorina, Trump and Rubio now receive the best scores on these measures of viability, only a bare majority of the activists believe any of them to be capable of winning the presidency.

And no GOP candidate has yet convinced more than 53 percent of their activist supporters that he or she could deliver victory in the general election. In contrast, 87 percent of Democratic activists said in July that Hillary Clinton could win a general election. And it's possible that activists, like other voters, are reacting largely to who's dominating the airwaves, meaning they could move on once some of the media frenzy subsides.

Cruz: Conventional Outsider

One candidate more favored by Republican activists than Republican voters, at least for now, is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who stands out as something of a sleeper because of his strong tea party support.

Cruz has the fourth highest favorable rating of the candidates (75 percent favorable, 22 percent unfavorable; roughly the same as Fiorina) and scores just below Fiorina, Carson and Rubio -- and ahead of Trump -- on being acceptable to most Republicans. And he currently runs second to Donald Trump, with 17 percent support among the activists.

Unlike many of his rivals, whose support tends to be similar across the spectrum of Republican activists, Cruz has the advantage of a strong base of support among tea party members and evangelical Christians.

Among tea party-affiliated activists, Cruz takes first place, with 26 percent of the vote. When first and second choice are tallied together, just under half of tea party members name him. In contrast, just 8 percent of non-tea party members say he's their first choice. Cruz also leads with 26 percent among self-described born-again Christians.

Cruz is also significantly better-liked among these groups than among the activists as a whole, with 84 percent of evangelicals and 87 percent of tea partiers rating him favorably.

Will The Party Decide?

If the political theorists are right that candidates like Trump, Fiorina, Carson and Cruz will eventually fade, that leaves three more establishment-friendly options in play: Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Marco Rubio.

Two of the three are beset by serious problems. While conventional wisdom may weigh against Trump, Fiorina and Carson, Republican opinion weighs heavily against Kasich and, especially, Bush.

In the July survey of activists, Jeb Bush was already suffering from a lack of confidence in his ability to win the general election, as well as high unfavorable ratings and many who'd be angry if he was elected. Since then, his problems have multiplied. A 54 percent majority of activists now rate him unfavorably, up 7 points since the summer. Just 29 percent now think he could win the general election if nominated.

John Kasich, who was both less known and slightly more popular than Bush in the July survey of activists, has gained recognition over the summer -- but most of the new impressions appear to be negative. Since July, his favorable rating (now 49 percent) is essentially unchanged, but the portion of activists who rate him unfavorably rose 13 points, to 38 percent. Nearly all of the activists (85 percent) watched all or part of the CNN debate and more than a quarter of those (28 percent) said their impression of Kasich worsened as a result.

Kasich also earns low scores for viability. Just 33 percent say he would be acceptable to most Republicans, and fewer than 1 in 4 think he can win either the party nomination or the general election.

As with Trump, Kasich's numbers suggest factional support. More activists now say they could never support Kasich (19 percent) than support him as either a first or second choice (8 percent).

With Walker out of the race and Kasich sinking, Marco Rubio stands alone as the establishment candidate who, despite his party's outsider-happy mood, is actually liked by most of the activist base. Eighty percent of activists rate him positively, putting him behind only Carson. Almost no one considers him an unacceptable candidate, and the percentage who think he's a viable choice for the Republican nomination and the presidency -- 58 percent and 52 percent -- rivals the numbers for candidates who dwarf him in the horse race polls.

He remains, nevertheless, dwarfed. Just 13 percent of activists name him as their top choice, and only about one in four call him their first or second choice.

This poll, like the copious horserace surveys released almost daily, provides a snapshot of a Republican establishment losing a grip on its activist base. If that translates into an outsider win in next year's primaries, it would represent an historic upset. If political scientists are right to think that "party elites" will ultimately choose their nominee, however, Rubio is now best positioned to straddle the gap between the expectations of activists and the mores of the party establishment.

The survey consists of 500 completed interviews of self-identified Republicans selected from YouGov's opt-in online panelists who met the screening criteria for party activism. Interviews were conducted Sept. 22-28, 2015. Full results of the survey are here and crosstabulations are here.

The screening criteria were as follows: Respondents who think of themselves as Republicans, say they would vote in a Republican primary in their state and say they have either run for office, held elected public office, been a paid staffer for a political campaign or elected official, been a party official or substantively contributed time or money to a campaign.

For weighting purposes, a sampling frame was created based on the American National Election Studies using similar measures of political activism. Cases were weighted to the frame using an iterative process known as raking. Weights were based on party identification, age, gender and education.

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 found here. More details on the poll's 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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