Demand for an outsider versus a candidate with political experience is the driving feature of the 2016 presidential campaign to date, propelling Donald Trump in the GOP primary contest as well as buoying his support in a potential general election match-up against Hillary Clinton.
In the Democratic contest, our ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that outsider status helps Bernie Sanders, as well, but in a much more muted way: Fewer potential Democratic primary voters care about it, and those who do tilt much more modestly to Sanders.
As we’ve reported, the strongest independent factor in Trump’s support in the primary is whether potential voters are looking for a candidate from outside the political establishment or one with political experience. It’s also a major influence in a hypothetical Trump-Clinton matchup, even when taking into account partisanship, ideology and a range of other variables.
Trump’s 38 percent support for the nomination -– his highest in ABC/Post polls to date -– is built on the fact that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents prefer an outsider candidate, versus just 37 percent who say they want a candidate with political experience. Trump gets 50 percent support from those looking for an outsider, beating his nearest competitors (Ben Carson and Ted Cruz) by more than 3 to 1. Among the minority who want an experienced candidate, Trump’s support drops to 21 percent, essentially tied with Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Significantly, this 29-point gap in support for Trump holds up in a statistical analysis that controls for other factors that are likely to be related to GOP primary preferences, including ideology, views about most important issues, attitudes toward Muslims, education and other demographic variables.
Outsider preferences do far less on the Democratic side, for two reasons. One is that three-quarters of registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents prefer experience over outsider status, including 72 percent of liberals and 60 percent of moderates. Another is that Clinton manages 32 percent support even among those who favor an outsider –- better outside her sandbox than Trump’s 21 percent score outside his.
Specifically, Clinton overwhelms Sanders by 69-21 percent among leaned Democrats who place a priority on political experience. Among the relatively few who prefer an outsider, Sanders leads, but by a fairly modest 49-32 percent. (This result combines the last two ABC/Post polls for an adequate sample size.)
The insider/outsider divide spills over into a general election matchup between Clinton and Trump as well. Unsurprisingly, Trump dominates among the outsider crowd (73-18 percent) as does Clinton among those looking for political experience (72-23). (This works out to a slight 50-44 percent Clinton lead among registered voters overall in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates.)
This chasm is not just an artifact of partisan and ideological divisions on the experience/outsider question. Even in the center, among moderates and independents, general election support divides nearly as strongly based on preferences for an outsider or an experienced candidate.
This result is further confirmed in a statistical analysis that controls for partisan identification, ideology, Obama approval, issue attitudes and demographic variables. According to the model, for a hypothetical swing voter –- specifically, a middle-aged, middle-income white male living in the Midwest who identifies as a moderate independent and somewhat disapproves of Barack Obama’s job performance -– there is a 34-percentage-point gap in support for Trump based on insider-outsider views.
These of course are early days; there’s no assurance the two current frontrunners will win their party nominations, or that other issues won’t come to the fore. But the current clout of the experience-vs.-outsider dynamic begs the question of what drives that preference.
As noted, political partisanship is one strong factor, with leaned Democrats – the incumbent party identifiers – sticking with experience and the out-party followers favoring an anti-establishment alternative. Indeed, the sharpest division is related to opinions about Obama. Among those who approve of his job performance, 81 percent side with political experience vs. 14 percent for an outsider. That shifts to 37-59 percent among Obama disapprovers.
Preference for an outsider is 15 points higher among men than women and 25 points higher among whites than nonwhites. Two-thirds of lower income Americans side with experience vs. just a bare majority of those earning more than $50,000 a year.
Preference for an outsider also is related to negative views about Muslims. Among the majority of Americans who view mainstream Islam as a peaceful religion, 64 percent prefer experience. In contrast, a majority of those who view mainstream Islam as encouraging violence say they want an outsider. And that relationship holds true even when controlling for partisanship and ideology alike.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone Dec. 10-13, 2015, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including the design effect, for the full sample; 4 points for all registered voters; and 6 points for registered leaned Republicans. Partisan divisions are 33-23-34 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.
The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y. See details on the survey’s methodology here.