What Exit Polls Reveal About 2016’s GOP Electorate

by Tim Alberta

Manchester, N.H. — With two nominating contests down and dozens more to go, we’re only just beginning to get a glimpse of the voting patterns that will define the Republican electorate in 2016.

Still, there is already much to learn from monitoring GOP voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, two battleground states with highly engaged electorates. Edison Research interviewed 1,794 voters on their way into caucus locations in Iowa, and another 2,012 voters on their way out of precincts in New Hampshire, to ascertain the preferences and priorities of Republicans in those states.  

Here are five developing trends to watch within the GOP electorate, based on those entrance polls in Iowa and exit polls in New Hampshire.

1. Immigration Pales in Comparison to Other Concerns

Much attention was paid to a statistic in the New Hampshire exit polls that showed two-thirds of GOP voters supporting a temporary ban on foreign Muslims entering the U.S. 

The poll also showed a majority of Republicans, 56 percent, supporting a path to legal status for illegal immigrants already here. (Compared to 41 percent who said illegal immigrants should be deported to their countries of origin.)

Despite these headline-grabbing findings, it’s worth noting that New Hampshire GOP voters ranked “immigration” dead last when asked to identify the most important issue to them in 2016. “Economy/jobs” was first with 32 percent, followed by “Government spending” at 27 percent, and “Terrorism” at 23 percent. “Immigration” was a distant fourth at 15 percent.

This mirrors the findings from Iowa: There, 32 percent of Republican caucus-goers said “Government spending,” 27 percent said ”Economy/jobs,” 25 percent said “Terrorism,” and just 13 percent said “Immigration.” 

For all the analysis of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz capitalizing on what’s been billed as an issue of visceral importance to the base, it’s not clear that immigration is a top concern for Republican voters in 2016. That could change, of course, as the primary contest moves farther south.

2. Donald Trump’s Appeal Transcends Key Demographic Boundaries

It’s time to do away with the notion, once and for all, that Trump’s coalition is narrow. It’s anything but. 

In New Hampshire, Trump won double-digit pluralities among men (37 percent to John Kasich’s 16 percent) and women (32 to 16). He won double-digit pluralities among every single age group. He won double-digit pluralities among rural residents, city-dwellers and suburbanites. And he won double-digit pluralities among every income group, from people making under $30,000 a year (38 percent to Bush’s 16 percent) to those making over $200,000 a year (31 percent to Kasich’s 20 percent.) 

It’s worth noting: Not all of Trump’s aforementioned margins were overwhelming. For instance, among voters 65 and older, he took 29 percent to Kasich’s 19 percent, followed by three other candidates in double digits, suggesting a relatively low ceiling for Trump with the older voters that constitute the GOP’s most reliable voting bloc. 

Still, it’s evident that Trump has gained a foothold with virtually every segment of the Republican electorate. We saw the same thing in Iowa: Even among the demographic groups Trump lost to Cruz, there wasn’t a single one with whom he totally tanked. There is, however, one pattern that should give Trump pause . . . 

3. College-Educated Republicans Know Who They’re Against. But Who Are They For?

Speaking of hard ceilings, we’re beginning to see the formation of an anti-Trump coalition among college-educated Republicans. 

Trump actually placed first among the 54 percent of New Hampshire Republicans with a college degree, taking 29 percent of their votes. (This likely reflects Trump’s enormous, 19-point margin of victory in the state.) Yet Kasich won 19 percent, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush 12 percent apiece, Cruz 11 percent, and Christie 8 percent. That adds up to 62 percent of college-educated GOP voters voting against Trump — and the overall opposition is roughly two-thirds when factoring in smaller chunks also won by Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson.

We saw the same thing in Iowa, but Trump’s numbers there were worse: Four-fifths of college-educated Republicans in that state voted against him. Of the 51 percent of GOP caucus-goers with a college degree, Trump took 21 percent of the vote, trailing both Rubio (28 percent) and Cruz (25 percent). 

The good news for Trump: He continues to excel with non-college-educated Republicans: He won 28 percent of them in Iowa (a figure deflated by Cruz’s dominance among evangelicals there) and 41 percent in New Hampshire. These numbers, on top of public polling, show Trump is best positioned to win pluralities (and eventually majorities) of that crucial demographic moving forward. (Cruz finds himself in no man’s land when it comes to the college divide; he did well among both groups in Iowa, poorly among both groups in New Hampshire, and currently does not appear to have a natural home in either camp.)

The opposition to Trump among degree-wielding Republicans is a mixed blessing for the GOP establishment. On the one hand, it demonstrates a desire for center-right voters to consolidate against Trump. But time is of the essence. The longer it takes for college-educated GOP voters to rally around a single, traditionally moderate candidate — I.E., the longer their votes remain divided between Kasich, Rubio, Bush, and to some extent Cruz — the easier it will be for Trump to win states on the strength of his core support among non-college-educated Republicans.

4. “Values” Could be a Trump Card Against Trump

In New Hampshire, as in Iowa, voters were asked to name the “candidate quality that matters most” to them, and were given four choices: “Can win in November,” “Shares my values,” “Tells it like it is,” or “Can bring needed change.”

In New Hampshire, as in Iowa, a clear plurality of voters chose “Shares my values.”

And in New Hampshire, as in Iowa, Trump performed terribly with that group of voters.

Trump won easily in the other three categories: He took 32 percent of the 12 percent who said “Can win in November”; 65 percent of the 24 percent who said “Tells it like it is”; and 36 percent of the 28 percent who said “Can bring needed change.” But among the 35 percent who prioritized shared values, Trump won just 13 percent — behind Kasich (21 percent), Cruz (21 percent), and Bush (15 percent), and tied with Rubio.

Trump fared even worse in Iowa, winning just 5 percent of an even bigger plurality of voters — 42 percent — who chose “Shares my values.” That number likely kept Trump from winning Iowa. It didn’t pose as serious a threat in secular New Hampshire. But Trump’s unpopularity among “values voters” poses a grave threat as the race moves to evangelical-heavy South Carolina on February 20, and into the Bible Belt on March 1.

5. Lots of Voters Are Breaking Late

Roughly half of New Hampshire Republicans decided very late in the process who they were going to vote for: 23 percent said they’d settled on a candidate “just today” and 24 percent said they’d done so “in the last few days.”

That’s an even higher share of late-breaking voters than in Iowa, where a combined 35 percent of caucus-goers made up their minds either that day or “in the last few days” before voting.

In these cases, clear majorities of voters are trying to settle on a single alternative to Trump. (Even in New Hampshire, where Trump won a plurality, 24 percent, of voters who decided that day which candidate to support, the other three-quarters of those voters chose someone else.)

Conversely, Trump continues to enjoy overwhelming support from voters who settled on a candidate well in advance of voting. In Iowa, the biggest chunk of voters, 35 percent, said they decided on a candidate more than a month beforehand — and Trump won 39 percent of that demographic, a clear plurality. In New Hampshire, where 29 percent said they chose a candidate more than a month prior, Trump’s margin was even bigger: He won 57 percent of early deciders.

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