Eight months ago, Luntz Global Partners, where I am currently managing director, polled 1,200 Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. And these weren’t just any voters – these were the most committed and the most engaged… in other words the most likely to turn out and, you know… vote. We asked them what they wanted in their eventual nominee for president.
Knowing where things stand today, you will be surprised to hear what they said back then: They wanted a moderate governor with a proven track record of results.
My, how things have changed.
A few specifics…
The Trump phenomenon is indeed rewriting the rules of politics. But in the end GOP voters want a strong leader who not only bashes the system – but knows how to fix it.
They wanted a governor over a senator 68-32.
They wanted a moderate over a strong conservative 59-41.
They wanted someone who had balanced budgets, paid off debt, and cut taxes.
They wanted someone with the best chance of beating Hillary, even if they didn’t agree with him (or her) on some issues.
The most astonishing result, looking back? Out of 15 different character attributes, from bipartisanship and experience to intelligence and courage, the attribute that finished dead last was, “A very successful self-made businessman.”
It’s a proverbial Bizarro World of politics.
But looking closer at the results, you can see the vacuum that Donald Trump ultimately filled.
Nearly half said, “I am not satisfied with the candidates, and I’m waiting for somebody better to come along.”
They preferred a nominee with “strong leadership skills” and “common sense” – their top two attributes by a wide margin.
And they preferred a candidate who is an effective communicator with fewer accomplishments over someone more accomplished but a less effective communicator.
Indeed, Trump caught the right wave at the right time – and it has yet to crest.
And feeds the wave with every brazen statement, like this week’s Muslim travel ban.
The fact is, the more his language is over the top, the stronger his position appears to be at the top.
But is this what Republican primary voters really want in their nominee – a brash outsider who takes on anyone and everyone? Or do they want, as they told us before, a moderate with real results?
The simple truth is, they want to have their cake… eat it, and then shove it in Washington’s face. Their frustration is borders on rage – and Trump is their megaphone.
But they’re equally desperate for someone who doesn’t just rail against the problems; they want someone who can also solve them. Our national polls and voter focus groups demonstrate this again and again.
That’s why the true frontrunner is not Donald Trump.
The real frontrunners are – or will ultimately be – Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
Why? Because they have the cross capability to reflect real voter resentment AND appeal to their aspirations for smart ideas. They don’t just throw bombs – they have serious solutions that can deliver real results.
Listen to Rubio explain his plan for the innovation economy. For improving education. For making career-oriented job training mean something again. Listen to him explain not just the intricacies of his tax plan – but the benefits of it as well.
Listen to Cruz talk about his plan to defeat radical Islamic terror. For reining in wasteful Washington spending. His solutions for American-made energy to create jobs and protect our national security.
Sure, they are both “just” first-term senators. In the year of the outsider, what’s so wrong with five years of offering conservative, common-sense, and substantive solutions?
What about Trump’s solutions? According to our national research, more than half of Trump supporters say that their biggest worry is that, “He has too few specific solutions.”
And on his signature proposal on immigration, an overwhelming majority of voters, 71-29, say that it’s unrealistic that the federal government could effectively identify, round up, and remove 11+ million illegal immigrants. Even his own supporters don’t think it’s possible (59-41).
The Trump phenomenon is indeed rewriting the rules of politics. But in the end GOP voters want a strong leader who not only bashes the system – but knows how to fix it. That’s why Cruz and Rubio will be there in the end.
David Merritt has been an advisor to three Republican presidential campaigns. He is currently managing director at Luntz Global Partners, the communications firm led by pollster and Fox News contributor Frank Luntz.