Lansing — New York billionaire Donald Trump leads five other Republican presidential hopefuls in a Michigan race that remains fluid less than three weeks before the state’s primary, according to a Detroit News/WDIV-TV statewide poll.
Trump captures 25 percent of 600 likely GOP primary voters, while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas follows at 15 percent and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at 12 percent. But the survey finds there remains much room for movement among Michiganians who plan to cast ballots March 8.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich garnered 10.5 percent, while retired neurosurgeon and Detroit native Ben Carson received 9 percent and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush trailed at 5 percent.
More than half of those polled said they were still open about whom they would eventually support. About 21 percent of those surveyed said they were undecided, while another 36 percent said they backed a candidate but could change their minds.
Among undecided GOP voters, Trump has a 46 percent unfavorable rating, leaving a potential opening for opponents to exploit before the primary, pollster Richard Czuba said.
“Republicans either love him or hate him. There’s no in-between,” said Czuba, president of the Glengariff Group Inc., a Lansing polling firm that conducted the Feb. 14-16 telephone survey. “Those undecided voters don’t like him.”
The poll shows a fight between Cruz, Rubio, Kasich and Carson for second and third, Czuba said.
“The problem for all of the other candidates is they’re all fighting to be the bridesmaid right now, but they’re not fighting to be the bride,” he said.
Trump’s polling lead in Michigan spans most facets of the GOP electorate.
He leads among men with and without a college education and voters who identify with the conservative tea party movement. The real estate developer holds a 21 percent to 18 percent edge over Cruz among voters who oppose abortion.
Trump’s lead over Cruz among anti-abortion voters falls within the poll’s margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 percentage points.
The bombastic tycoon, who described himself in 1999 as “very pro-choice,” leads among Republican voters who favor abortion rights for women, 32 percent to Kasich’s 17 percent, the poll shows. Trump has said his position on abortion changed toward opposing the practice, except in the cases of rape or incest.
Trump also holds a three-percentage-point lead over Cruz among voters who regularly attend church, while carrying a nearly three-to-one advantage over the Texas senator among those who attend once a month or less.
Stances resonate with some
“It’s somewhat ironic that Donald Trump is building his lead in Michigan on the backs of voters who are pro-choice and don’t attend church regularly,” Czuba said.
Cruz won the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses ahead of Trump and then Rubio. In New Hampshire, Trump won overwhelmingly while Kasich placed second and Cruz third.
In South Carolina ahead of Saturday’s primary, the Cruz campaign’s television ads have targeted Trump’s past support for abortion. Cruz also has been emphasizing his record as the solicitor general of Texas, defending state-level laws restricting abortion.
“It’s up to Mr. Trump to prove to people that he is indeed pro-life,” said Wendy Day, Cruz’s Michigan campaign director. “We have a record of it on our side.”
Like in other states, Trump’s campaign message railing against illegal immigration, foreign trade agreements and the state of America’s standing in the world appears to be resonating with a segment of Michigan voters.
“I just can’t picture Donald Trump as a president ... but I would vote for him just because he’s saying so many things that I feel and wouldn’t say to other people,” said Karol Hudson, 76, of Westland, who participated in the poll.
Dale Prins, a masonry business owner from Grand Rapids, said he likes Trump’s business acumen and the fact that Trump is financing his campaign with his own money.
“I don’t think he can be bought,” said Prins, 56.
Social conservatives in play
But Trump has challenges. His overall 43 percent unfavorable rating is the highest among the six candidates, mainly fueled by opposition from GOP women, the polling data shows.
Cruz has room to gain on Trump in Republican-rich west and northern Michigan, where more than half of the undecided voters surveyed reside, Czuba said.
“Voters in west and north Michigan are very much social conservatives, and I think they’re still trying to figure out where they should go with their social conservative vote,” he said.
Under the Michigan Republican primary rules, any candidate who earns at least 15 percent of the vote will win a proportionate share of the state’s 59 delegates to the GOP national convention in Cleveland. A candidate needs to win at least 1,237 delegates to clinch the GOP presidential nomination.
With Cruz, Rubio, Kasich and Carson polling within six percentage points of each other, the race in Michigan could turn into a campaign to break the 15 percent threshold, Czuba said.
“I think that’s really what we’re looking for is a battle for second, unless Cruz can really unite the social conservatives behind him … and challenge Trump for the lead,” he said.
As the second choice of voters, Rubio polled highest at 19 percent. Next was Cruz at 16.5 percent, Carson at 13 percent and Trump at 12 percent.
About 70 percent of those surveyed said they routinely vote for Republicans, while 29 percent said they are independent and about 1 percent said they vote Democratic.
Democrats have a competitive primary between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, but could skip their contest and request a Republican ballot. T.J. Bucholz, a Democratic consultant, said the Republican primary gives Democrats a reason to cause “mischief.”
“Trump is still the draw at this stage in the game,” said Bucholz, president of Vanguard Public Affairs in Lansing. “There’s a lot of voters in Michigan who will want to have their say on him.”
Carson adored, but trailing
Kasich was in Michigan Monday and Tuesday while the poll was conducted. The second-term Ohio governor targeted Michigan because it falls one week before his home state of Ohio votes on March 15 in a winner-take-all delegate bonanza that includes Florida, Illinois and North Carolina.
Carson had the highest favorable rating among all six candidates at 62 percent.
“Republican voters really adore Ben Carson … but that’s not translating into votes,” Czuba said.
The GOP field could winnow between now and March 8. The Michigan race is expected to intensify on March 3, when the remaining Republican candidates will square off in a televised debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.
Bush has emphasized performing well in South Carolina’s primary. Right to Rise, the super political action committee supporting him, delayed TV advertising in Michigan and other states to direct more money to the South Carolina airwaves.
Nevada Republicans vote Tuesday in caucuses that could give the winner a boost heading into the March 1 Super Tuesday of 12 states holding primaries and caucuses.
Republican strategist Karl Rove said this week that Kasich’s momentum from New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary is not enough to propel him to Michigan. Kasich’s allies have eyed Vermont and Massachusetts as Super Tuesday states where he could defeat Trump.
“He needs to have some bigger wins on March 1 to do something on March 8,” Rove said in an interview with The Detroit News.