A Suffolk University/USA TODAY national poll of likely voters shows former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump solidly ahead in their respective nomination fights eight weeks before the Iowa caucuses. However, Democrat Clinton’s onetime lead in one-to-one matchups against GOP candidates has eroded, and a small polling subsample showed that two-thirds of Trump voters would continue to support him as an independent candidate if he were to leave the Republican Party.

Despite a commanding lead over her Democratic rivals—Clinton (56 percent), Sanders (29 percent) and Martin O’Malley (4 percent), with 11 percent undecided—the race gets much tighter for Clinton in potential head-to-head general election matchups with the four leading Republican candidates, according to the poll. Each of these matchups is a statistical dead heat given the poll’s margin of error:

  • Marco Rubio (48 percent) tops Clinton (45 percent)
  • Clinton (48 percent)—Trump (44 percent)
  • Clinton (46 percent)—Ben Carson (45 percent)
  • Clinton (47 percent)—Ted Cruz (45 percent)

The gap between the Democratic front-runner and Republican candidates has closed since July, when a Suffolk University-USA Today poll showed Clinton leading Trump by 17 points in a one-to-one matchup, 51 percent to 34 percent. At that time, Bush was her closest rival. He trailed the former New York senator 46 percent to 42 percent, with 13 percent undecided.

Meanwhile, Trump led with 27 percent among likely Republican primary/caucus voters, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) at 17 percent; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at 16 percent; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, 10 percent; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 4 percent; and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tied at 2 percent. All other candidates together totaled 3 percent, and 17 percent were undecided.

“The Republican side is beginning to shake out, at least at the national level,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. “Both Senators Cruz and Rubio are vying hard to be the Republican alternative to Trump, but there are seventeen percent undecided still, which keeps the door open for one of the single-digit candidates to make a splash in Iowa or New Hampshire and shake the race up further.”

Cruz was the top “second choice” (22 percent) of all the candidates, followed by Rubio (15 percent), with Carson and Trump tied at 13 percent. The second-choice ballot test is a good indicator of whom Republican voters may switch to as minor candidates drop out.

Rubio tops in favorability

Rubio, meanwhile, was the only major candidate from either political party who had a net positive (+5) favorability rating, with a 41 percent favorable to 36 percent unfavorable rating. The next closest in terms of popularity were President Barack Obama (-1), Ben Carson (-3) and Bernie Sanders (-3). Of the remaining major candidates, Cruz’s net favorability was (-9), Hillary Clinton’s (-15), and Donald Trump’s (-30), an indication of a 30 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable rating.

Loyalists would stick with Trump as an independent

Despite Trump’s weak favorability numbers among general election voters, his following within the Republican Party is fiercely loyal. When Trump voters were asked if they would still vote for him as an independent candidate and not as a Republican, 68 percent said they would vote for him, while 18 percent would not, and 11 percent were undecided. These statistics are based on a subset of fewer than 100 voters total and thus carry a much larger margin of error than the general poll.

“Despite having the highest unfavorable among all voters, Trump is getting the maximum return on his campaign investment: He has spent the least amount of money yielding huge returns in the GOP primary, and his loyal following would control the outcome of the general election if he were to run as an independent,” said Paleologos.

Methodology

The nationwide survey of 1,000 voters was conducted Dec. 2-6 using live telephone interviews of households where respondents indicated they were very or somewhat likely to vote in the 2016 general election. The margin of error is +/-3 percentage points at a 95 percent level of confidence. The margin of error for the Democratic primary/caucus subset of 363 likely voters is +/-5.1 percentage points. The margin of error for the Republican primary/caucus subset of 357 likely voters is +/-5.2 percentage points. Marginals and full cross-tabulation data are posted on the Suffolk University Political Research Center website. For more information, contact David Paleologos at 781-290-9310, dpaleologos@suffolk.edu.