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Takeaways from the early Republican primary elections

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump reacts at a primary election night party at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Andrew Harnik/AP
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump reacts at a primary election night party at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump appears close to invincible in the Republican primaries and caucuses, but despite his commanding victories, the front-runner’s strength among general election voters remains unclear.

AP VoteCast shows that Trump, the former president, has galvanized the core of the GOP electorate in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. His voters so far are overwhelmingly white, mostly older than 50 and generally without a college degree. This, however, is very different than the electorate he could face in November, when he’d have to appeal to a far more diverse group and possibly win over supporters of former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Her pull has been limited in the GOP primaries – but her candidacy may foreshadow problems for Trump.

AP VoteCast reveals that a large portion of Trump’s opposition within the Republican primaries is comprised of voters who abandoned him before this year.

It also highlights a Republican party that has made an about-face on central policy issues, favoring some big government programs and retreating from commitments abroad.

AP VoteCast is a series of surveys conducted among 1,597 Republican caucus voters in Iowa, 1,989 New Hampshire voters who took part in the Republican primary and 2,466 Republican primary voters in South Carolina. The surveys were conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Haley’s Coalition: Anti-Trump Republicans and 2020 Biden Voters
Haley was Trump’s lone major challenger by South Carolina, but the gauntlet of the early states highlighted the limitations of her campaign pitch.

Some of Haley’s supporters in New Hampshire and South Carolina were voters who told AP VoteCast they identified as Democrats or independents. More importantly, these voters tended to have backed Biden in 2020. In South Carolina and Iowa, about 4 in 10 Haley voters supported Biden nearly four years ago. Roughly half of her New Hampshire voters voted for Biden.

The challenge for Haley is that this group is a minority within the GOP. They constituted anywhere between 11% and 24% of GOP voters in each of the three contests, putting a low ceiling on her support. Many of Haley’s remaining supporters in each state said they voted third party or didn’t vote in the 2020 general election, also a distinct minority of voters in GOP nominating contests.

The Republican electorate remains overwhelmingly white

So far, almost all of Trump’s backing has come from white voters, who made up the vast majority of the electorate in the first few head-to-head Republican contests — even in diverse South Carolina. Those results give us few clues about whether Trump can cut into the margins that Democrats have traditionally enjoyed with Black and Hispanic voters.

Trump’s performance shows his resilience among voting groups that were strongly behind him in previous elections. Nearly 6 in 10 of the votes he received in 2020 came from white people without a college degree, a margin he exceeded in the first head-to-head primaries and caucuses. More than 6 in 10 of his voters in the early states were also over 50. Trump also maintained high levels of support with evangelical Christians and people living in small towns and rural areas, groups that have significant weight within Republican primaries but comprise a smaller share of the general electorate.

The new Republican Party

It’s official: The age of a small-government, hawkish Republican Party appears to have ended. Instead, Republican primary voters strongly support domestic policies that require significant government investment, like maintaining the current age of 67 for Social Security eligibility and building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. And they’re showing less enthusiasm for intervention in conflicts with traditional U.S. rivals like Russia.

In the lead-up to the primaries, Republican candidates clashed over these issues, testing whether long-held GOP positions like shrinking the size of entitlement programs and taking a strong hand in foreign conflicts still resonate with the party’s base. The result of the first head-to-head Republican contests shows how Trump has shaped today’s Republican Party.

Trump’s stances resonate strongly with his base: According to the three surveys, roughly 7 in 10 Trump voters support an end to continued aid to Ukraine, approximately 8 in 10 want to preserve Social Security as-is and about 9 in 10 want a wall along the U.S. southern border.

Trump’s hardest tests are yet to come

Trump has enjoyed a favorable audience in the Republican contests, one he won’t be able to count on in November if he wins the nomination.

Roughly 7 in 10 of the voters in the primaries and caucuses identified as conservative. But in 2020, conservatives were less than 40% of the general electorate; the rest were roughly split between liberals and moderates. Just 36% of moderates voted for Trump in 2020 and only 8% of liberals did.

And some potential weak spots for Trump are already showing. At least 2 in 10 of the voters in South Carolina’s Republican primary and the Iowa caucuses said they won’t back Trump in November, while approximately 3 in 10 in New Hampshire felt that way.

In each of the early states, Trump either lost or split voters with a college degree to Haley. Nor were the suburbs – where the plurality of general election voters live – particularly welcoming to him in this year’s GOP contests. He split the suburban vote with his opponents in Iowa and New Hampshire and won the suburbs in South Carolina by a smaller margin than in the state as a whole.

But those are just some of the challenges Trump will confront in the coming months – in the early states, anywhere between one-quarter and nearly 4 in 10 Republican voters say that he broke the law in one or more of the criminal cases against him.