WASHINGTON – Republican voters view Donald Trump as their strongest general election candidate, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll that highlights the sharp contrast between the party's voters and its top professionals regarding the billionaire businessman's ultimate political strength.
Seven in 10 Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters say Trump could win in November 2016 if he is nominated, and that's the most who say so of any candidate. By comparison, 6 in 10 say the same for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who, like Trump, has tapped into the powerful wave of antiestablishment anger defining the early phases of the 2016 contest.
"It's the lifelong establishment politicians on both sides that rub me the wrong way," said registered Republican Joe Selig, a 60-year-old carpenter from Vallejo, California. "I think Trump is more electable. He's strong. We need strength these days."
Trump and Carson are considered among the least electable general election candidates by the Republican Party's professionals, those who are in the business of helping candidates run campaigns and win elections.
Experienced political strategists note that winning a general election and winning the Republican nomination are often very different tasks. The GOP's most conservative voters — a group that is older and whiter than the nation as a whole — wield extraordinary influence in picking the nominee. Independents, moderate voters and minorities are far more important in general elections that draw many more people to the polls.
While Trump and Carson are popular in primary election polls, both have used divisive rhetoric in recent months that alienated some minorities. Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals during his announcement speech; while Carson said he would not support a Muslim presidential candidate.
"Republicans think (Democrat) Hillary (Rodham Clinton) is weaker than she is. They are wrong," said GOP operative Katie Packer, who was deputy campaign manager for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney. "They think we don't need to win more women or more Hispanics to win. They're wrong."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has embraced a welcoming tone with Hispanics, tops the field of experienced political leaders on the question of electability, running about even with Carson and slightly behind Trump.
Six in 10 Republicans say Bush could win the general election and 54 percent say the same about Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. There's a drop-off among the rest of the GOP's 2016 crowded class. None of the other candidates is viewed as electable in a general election by more than half of Republican voters.
Carson and Trump are the candidates most likely to receive positive ratings from Republican voters, with 65 percent saying they have a favorable opinion of Carson and 58 percent saying the same of Trump. Republicans are somewhat less excited about Bush, with 48 percent giving him a favorable rating.
"If he weren't a Bush, I wouldn't even know his name," said Republican Leslie Millican, a 34-year-old housewife from Magnolia, Arkansas. "I like the other Bushes. Something about (Jeb Bush) — he ain't grown on me yet."
Trump and Bush have the highest negative ratings within their own party: 37 percent of Republican voters say they have an unfavorable opinion of Bush and 36 percent say the same of Trump.
Their negatives are even more pronounced among the broader electorate. The AP-GfK poll found Trump is viewed unfavorably by 57 percent of those surveyed, the highest negatives of any Republican candidate. Bush is next with unfavorable ratings from 48 percent of all respondents.
Overall, all but one GOP candidate is viewed more unfavorably than favorably by all those questioned. Carson is the exception, drawing about equally positive and negative views. He remains unknown by a significant portion of the electorate.
Among Republican voters, all the candidates except New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have a net positive rating. Carson tops the list, followed by Rubio, former technology executive Carly Fiorina and then Trump.
The poll also found a sharp difference between the political parties over experience.
By an overwhelming 77 percent to 22 percent margin, Republican registered voters and leaners say they prefer an outsider candidate who will change how things are done, rather than someone with experience in Washington who can get things done. They prefer someone with private sector leadership experience over experience holding elected office, 76 percent to 22 percent.
Trump, Carson and Fiorina are the only Republican candidates who have never held elective office. Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is a former first lady, secretary of state and senator.
Perhaps that helps explain why Democrats prefer experience over outsider status, 67 percent to 32 percent, and experience in office over private sector experience 66 percent to 33 percent.
Republican strategist John Feehery says Trump is considered electable now only because he hasn't yet been the subject of a multimillion dollar negative ad campaign, which will happen should he maintain his lead in the polls.
"Right now, he serves a valuable purpose as a front-runner, especially for the Democrats," Feehery said. "They would love him to be our nominee."