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Challenges for Trump and Biden emerge even as both cruise: Exit polls

Even as they cruised toward nomination, Super Tuesday exit poll results showed challenges for Joe Biden and Donald Trump alike, including broad, substantive gaps between Trump and Nikki Haley voters -- raising questions of how Trump, if the nominee, can bridge them come November.

In a riposte to Trump, 51% of Haley voters in Virginia and 50% in North Carolina said they approve of Biden’s work as president, as did 30% in California. Further, 80% of Haley voters in North Carolina, 69% in California and 69% in Virginia were unwilling to say they’ll support the party’s nominee whoever it is, mirroring Haley’s recent hedge on the issue.

Moreover, combining available data in all states with exit or entrance polls this year, Haley voters by 79-17% have said Trump would be unfit for office if convicted of a crime, by a nearly identical 79-18% have said they’d be dissatisfied with him as the nominee and by 83-12% have rejected his claim that Biden didn’t legitimately win in 2020, a tenet of Trump’s campaign.

In other signs of distance from Trump supporters, 76% of Haley voters, in aggregate, oppose a federal abortion ban and six in 10 support a chance for most undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status. In questions asked only in California, her voters were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the Supreme Court ruling eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion -- and 54% disapproved of Trump’s performance in office as president.

Haley and Trump voters even differ in an emotional dimension with 59% of Trump’s voters saying they’re angry about the way things are going in this country. Among Haley voters, it’s barely more than one-third that number, 21%.

Another window on the November election was available Tuesday via California’s open primary for the U.S. Senate, a so-called jungle primary in which both Democrats and Republicans run and the top two finishers, regardless of party, face each other in November.

PHOTO: 'I voted stickers' line a table at Gloucester High School in Gloucester, Massachusetts, during the Super Tuesday presidential primary, Mar. 5, 2024.  (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: 'I voted stickers' line a table at Gloucester High School in Gloucester, Massachusetts, during the Super Tuesday presidential primary, Mar. 5, 2024. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

Among California Democrats who voted in the Senate primary, 83% in preliminary exit poll results approved of how Biden is handling his job as president. But among independents -- often swing voters in national elections -- just 35% approved of Biden’s job performance, while 65% disapproved. Among Republicans, disapproval of Biden reached a near-unanimous 92%.

Trump matched Biden in his base -- 83% of Republicans in the Senate open primary approved of how Trump handled the job when he was president. Among independents, fewer approved, 43%, while 56% disapproved. Among Democrats, 97% said they disapprove.

On one hand, Trump did a slight 8 percentage points better than Biden in job approval among California independents. On the other, 60% of these independents said they would not see Trump as fit to be president if he were convicted of a crime. In Trump’s own party, 28% of Republicans said the same.

Beyond his approval rating, challenges for Biden were reflected in economic attitudes among California Senate primary voters as 55% overall rated the national economy negatively -- including 66% of independents. Additionally, just 14% overall -- including 11% of independents -- said their family is getting ahead financially. Neither result bodes particularly well for an incumbent president.

Beyond Trump’s criminal exposure, 71% of Californians in the Senate open primary said they were dissatisfied or angry about the U.S. Supreme Court decision eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion -- including 62% of independents and 34% of Republicans. Fewer than half of independents, 41%, said most undocumented immigrants should be deported, and most, 66%, rejected Trump’s false claim that Biden didn’t legitimately win the 2020 election.

A focus on independents is justified given their swing voter status. Trump won independents in six swing states where he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden won independents in all six of those states in 2020, moving all but North Carolina back into the Democratic column. Nationally, presidential winners have prevailed among independents in all but three elections since 1976 (in 2012, 2004 and 1976, per exit polls).

Naturally, the general election electorate next fall will be different than the makeup of Super Tuesday voters, both in California, which hasn’t voted for a Republican candidate for president since 1988, and elsewhere. But as the campaign approaches its transition to a general election race -- regardless of their one-sided primary victories -- these results show challenges ahead for Trump and Biden alike.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump. (Getty Images/AP)
PHOTO: President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump. (Getty Images/AP)

In winning the California GOP primary, Trump benefited from 82% support among conservatives, who accounted for nearly seven in 10 voters in the state in preliminary exit poll results; that more than compensated for a comparative dearth of white evangelical Christians. But so complete was his victory here that he also easily won independent voters, a group in which Haley has done better elsewhere. In total, 59% of voters in the primary said they were enthusiastic or satisfied with the Supreme Court ruling ending the constitutional right to an abortion and 69% favored deporting most undocumented immigrants. Trump prevailed by wide margins in trust to handle border security and the economy alike.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, fewer white evangelical Christians turned out than in other Southern states for which we have exit poll data (39% vs. 53% in North Carolina and 61% last week in South Carolina), but 79% of them backed Trump, holding their position as one of his strongest support groups this year. Two-thirds were conservatives, and Trump, again, cruised in this group with 77% support. Haley split independents with Trump, 49-48%. Among the 10% of Virginia GOP primary voters who identified themselves as Democrats, she won 84%. She also split college graduates with Trump but Trump easily won non-graduates with 78%. This, along with his hold on core Republicans, gave him a broad victory in Virginia.

The North Carolina primary was well suited for Trump, with 78% of voters identifying themselves as conservatives, half of them “very” conservative, and 53% as white evangelical Christians. More than half, 56%, don’t have a college degree -- with each of these a strong group for Trump. He also benefited from broad anti-immigrant sentiment, with 41% calling it their top issue vs. 33% who cited the economy and 63% favoring deportation of most undocumented immigrants. A total of 65% said Trump would be fit for office even if convicted of a crime -- but even here, 31% of Republican primary voters said he would not.

In the California Senate primary, two-thirds of voters said they disapprove of how Trump handled his job as president - and among them, 47% voted for Schiff, who made his name as House leader of Trump's first impeachment. The second-place finisher, Republican Steve Garvey, won 80% of the Republicans voting in the race, dropping to 41% of the independents and nearly no Democrats.

All told, exit polls have been conducted in Republican contests in six states to date -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and now California, North Carolina and Virginia. Aggregate results show the extent to which pro-Trump groups have turned out, and also mark demographic differences with general election voters, with more conservatives, white people, white evangelicals and older voters in the GOP primary electorate.

Attitudinally, aggregate majorities of voters in these 2024 Republican primaries buy into Trump’s falsehood that Biden was not legitimately elected, favor deporting most undocumented immigrants and say he would be fit for office even if convicted of a crime. Fewer, but still 41%, favor a federal ban on abortion. A broad 82% rate the economy negatively and 85% are dissatisfied or even angry at the way things are going in the country. Many fewer, though -- just 36% -- say they’re part of Trump’s MAGA movement.

Challenges for Trump and Biden emerge even as both cruise: Exit polls originally appeared on abcnews.go.com