Late Wednesday, a new poll brought a brief glimmer of hope to the Ted Cruz campaign only to be snuffed out hours later. The poll from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News showed a massive swing in the Republican presidential primary horse race following the most recent GOP debate.
Donald Trump, who had been leading polls by double digits for months, was shown trailing Cruz 28-26. While people following the race closely immediately flagged the poll as a likely outlier, there was at least some reason to believe that it might be reflecting real movement in public opinion because it was the first nationwide poll conducted in its entirety after the February 13 GOP debate.
Trump had what many believed to be his worst debate of the cycle that night, and there was considerable question about whether some of his more surprising positions – expressing support for Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services, accusing the George W. Bush administration of leading the country into war under false pretenses – would hurt him with Republicans in general and with South Carolina primary voters in particular.
The WSJ/NBC poll seemed to confirm that they had done exactly that. While that poll has often shown the race much closer than almost every other national survey, its most recent finding had been a Trump lead of 13 points. The 15-point swing looked as though it could mark a huge turning point in the race.
However, just hours after the results were released, a new Reuters/IPSOS poll finding was issued that showed Trump leading Cruz 40-17. The 23-point margin was among the largest the billionaire has enjoyed in the entire campaign.
On Monday morning, CBS News released its newest poll, showing Trump ahead of Cruz 35-18, a margin in line with much of the pre-debate polling, which seemed to reinforce the impression that the WSJ/NBC finding had indeed been an outlier.
However, the effect of Trump’s debate performance on his national numbers was only one of the key questions his campaign faced. A related, but separate concern was whether it would affect his standing in South Carolina, a state that is far more conservative and religious than the nation as a whole.
South Carolina’s demographics make it a natural for Ted Cruz, whose strongest appeal is to those who identify themselves as “very conservative” and to Evangelical Christians.
But Trump’s debate stumble – if that’s even a fair way of describing it – doesn’t appear to have moved the needle much in the Palmetto State. Five statewide polls conducted after the debate all show the billionaire maintaining a double-digit lead there. RealClearPolitics puts the average Trump margin at 16 points over Cruz in South Carolina, only slightly below where it was prior to the debate, suggesting that Trump wasn’t hurt there either.
South Carolina voters go to the polls on Saturday, and the result there could speak to Cruz’s ability to compete with Trump into the later months of the primary season.