There are sixteen major candidates for the Republican nomination for president. All but three of them have been United States senators or state governors at some point in their careers. The other three, according to a Morning Consult poll of people who watched the 11 leading contenders debate this past Wednesday, are leading the race.
A couple of big caveats: this is Morning Consult's first campaign season and it isn't yet a proven pollster, and the people who watched the Republican debates may not represent the party's primary electorate as a whole. But when you consider that this is a poll of Republicans (and independents who plan to vote in Republican primaries) who are engaged enough to watch an early debate — who one would think are the most engaged voters out there — it gets even more worrisome for the establishment.
Here are four terrible signs for the GOP establishment in the poll, and one good one:
1) Political n00bs get an outright majority of debate-watchers' support
36 percent of poll respondents support Donald Trump; 12 percent support Ben Carson; and 10 percent support Carly Fiorina. All together, that's 58 percent of Republican debate-watchers who support one of the three candidates in the race with no experience in elected office whatsoever. To put it another way, none of the twelve candidates in the field with political experience managed to crack 10 percent of the vote.
2) Fiorina's rising — but she's not taking Trump's support
Most observers, including the poll's respondents, agreed Fiorina won the debate. Now, many pundits are portraying her as the new candidate with momentum — implying that she's seizing it from Trump.
But Trump not only failed to lose support after a debate where he was largely irrelevant to the proceedings, he actually gained 5 percentage points since the last Morning Consult poll was conducted a week ago. If neither Fiorina's rise nor his own debate performance has hurt Trump, it's getting hard to imagine what can.
3) Jeb Bush's numbers are dismal — and Scott Walker's are even worse
6 percent of poll respondents said they would vote for Jeb Bush. That ties him with Chris Christie for sixth place (behind Trump, Carson and Fiorina, as well as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio). Just like Trump is somehow still gaining support, Bush is somehow still losing it.
It is definitely bad news for the Republican establishment that their preferred candidate is getting 6 percent in the polls. But the man who was supposed to be his "conservative challenger" is doing even worse. Scott Walker, who when the race started was the closest thing to the candidate of the conservative movement, is polling at 1 percent. He is tied with former New York Governor George Pataki.
4) The second-highest-polling elected official is Ted Cruz
Ted Cruz made his name, nationally, fighting the leadership of his own party in the Senate in the floor fight that resulted in the 2013 government shutdown. Ted Cruz is notoriously disliked by his Republican Senate colleagues. Ted Cruz's strategy over the last few months has been to buddy up with Donald Trump — even appearing at a rally in DC against the Iran nuclear deal together — in the hopes that when (or if) Trump's candidacy fades, Cruz will swoop in and take his support. Ted Cruz is, in other words, running against the fact that he is an elected official. Ted Cruz is polling better than almost every other elected official.
But there's one key exception.
5) But what if all of this is just very good news for Marco Rubio?
If you are an establishment Republican donor, all of this looks pretty dismal to you. But there is hope! After yet another quietly competent debate performance, Marco Rubio — who was once languishing with Christie and Rand Paul — is rising in the polls and, according to Morning Consult, right behind Fiorina.
Rubio is incredibly amenable to conservative establishment preferences. In fact, the biggest problem with his candidacy so far was that some of the people who might support Rubio were instead backing Jeb Bush. In a happy coincidence, just as Bush's campaign is looking hopeless — and just as it's becoming clear that the anti-establishment candidates aren't going to take each other out on their own — Rubio's looking a little better. In other words, Marco Rubio has a pretty strong case that if the GOP donor base wants to take down Donald Trump, he, and not Bush, is the candidate they should bet on.