Donald Trump has a registered voter gap

UMass released a poll of the Republican primary yesterday, in partnership with YouGov, showing Donald Trump leads the pack with 31 percent of likely voters, followed by Ben Carson at 22, Ted Cruz at 13 and Marco Rubio at 9. All of the rest of the candidates were under 5 percent. Jeb Bush was in seventh place, with three percent.

But YouGov did something with their sampling that the Trump campaign may want to make a note of. Their sample included 1,000 adults, which they screened down to 318 likely Republican primary voters and 381 likely Democratic primary voters. However, after they had identified their likely voters and polled them, they applied an additional screen for whether they could actually match voters back to the public voter files.

Normally, voter screens work the other way. You start with registered voters, and then screen for whether you think those voters will actually show up (in this case, YouGov simply asked respondents if they would definitely or probably vote in the upcoming election). But in this case, it appears that YouGov did the reverse: they polled self-described likely voters, and then checked to see whether their respondents were actually registered to vote.

Donald Trump, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Donald Trump, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

With this registered voter screen applied, Donald Trump falls out of first place. His nine point lead over Ben Carson evaporates, and he trails the traveling book salesman 29-28. Even Ted Cruz gains some ground on him, jumping four points to 17 percent. In fact, Donald Trump is the only Republican with more than five percent of the likely vote share who loses ground when the registered voter screen is applied, so while he only falls three percentage points, the loss matters more relative to gains made in the rest of the field. Taken together, the effects of the registered voter screen suggest that the enthusiastic-but-not-registered voters are predominantly either undecided or pro-Trump.

(This effect was nonexistent in the Democratic primary, with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders seeing nearly identical levels of support among both likely and confirmed registered voters.)

What’s more, Trump handily leads among likely voters on the question, “Which candidate do you think would have the best chance of winning the general election?” outpacing Carson and Rubio 40-24-12. But when the confirmed registered voter screen is applied, that lead shrinks to 35-30-16.

In short, it appears as though Donald Trump has a registered voter gap. He is the candidate most likely to have the support of Republicans who are excited to vote in the upcoming primary, but would be barred from actually casting ballots if the election were held today.

It’s important to note that the poll is a small sample, so it’d be great to see the effects of a registered voter screen in other polls in other states. However, from what we know about Donald Trump’s supporters, this drop-off among registered voters makes sense. Much of Trump’s support comes from people who are more engaged with The Apprentice than they are with politics. More importantly, over half of his supporters have a high school degree or less — a larger share of non-college voters than the GOP as a whole. These data points matter given that educational attainment is very much related to voter registration: only 60.4% of citizens with a high school degree or less were registered to vote as of 2012, while 78.6% of citizens with at least some college were registered.

Of course, none of this would matter if the United States had universal or automatic voter registration. Were it not for an anachronistic and unequally-applied barrier to entry in the voting market, the Republican primary would be an accurate reflection of the will of its electorate, as every self-identified enthusiastic Republican would be able to enter the political process and cast a ballot. And until (or unless) something fundamentally changes in the Republican primary, the will of the Republican electorate is to nominate Donald Trump. It isn’t even particularly close.

But given our current opt-in system of voter registration, a number of Republicans who want to vote in their primaries look like they’re going to get shut out, and that group of would-be voters disproportionately favors Trump. This leaves open the possibility that the Republican primaries produce a nominee other than Trump against the wishes of its electorate.

I guess the question, then, is whether Trump supports policy changes that will make it easier for those who support him to actually cast ballots for him when it’s time to vote.

Any reporters on Donald Trump’s beat want to ask him if he supports automatic voter registration?

Correction: UMass’s poll was national, not of Massachusetts voters.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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