Donald Trump has a hefty lead among Kentucky Republicans heading into Saturday's presidential caucus, according to a Big Red Poll from Western Kentucky University’s Social Science Research Center released Monday.
The poll shows GOP national front-runner Trump leading the field among likely Kentucky caucus participants with 35 percent support, followed by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at 22 percent and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at 15 percent. Fifteen percent of likely caucus participants said they are still undecided.
As the poll aligns with national trends, "I think it's what you'd expect," Warren County Republican Party Chairman Scott Lasley said.
WKU Social Science Research Center Director Joel Turner agreed.
"It's certainly not unexpected," Turner said, adding that the poll tried to capture the sentiment of those who indicated they are the most likely to attend Saturday's caucus. But with turnout the big unknown, there are some scenarios that "suggest it could be closer," Turner said.
"However we break it down, Trump is ahead," he said.
Entering the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses, Trump has been building a national delegate lead that some believe may be insurmountable.
Some observers contend Saturday's first-ever Kentucky GOP caucus will make the state more relevant nationally as the vote comes earlier in the process than the traditional May primary. But heading into Super Tuesday, Trump had an unofficial 82-17 delegate lead over second-place Cruz, with 16 for Rubio.
"He's certainly in the driver's seat," Lasley said of Trump.
However, "Kentucky is pretty important for" Rubio, Lasley said, as he looks to make up a lot of ground.
"There is room in Kentucky, especially for Rubio," to get some delegates, Turner said. Kentucky is giving delegates proportionately to Saturday's vote, meaning that even if Trump wins the caucus, other top finishers can also pick up delegates.
While some of the candidates have been through or plan to stop in Kentucky, none have at this point scheduled local appearances, Lasley said.
The poll also found:
•Following the three leaders were Ben Carson with 7 percent support and John Kasich with 6 percent.
•Sixty-two percent of the respondents "support a temporary ban on non-U.S. citizen Muslims from entering the country. Among this group, Trump leads with nearly 48" percent, according to the poll.
•Sixty percent of those surveyed said they believed immigrants were taking jobs away from U.S. citizens. Trump leads with roughly 43 percent support among that group.
•Carson scored the highest when it came to having voters viewing him favorably against unfavorably (68 percent vs. 17 percent) while Trump was third (53 percent favorable vs. 45 percent unfavorable).
•When asked what mattered to voters most when it came to picking a candidate, 26 percent indicated that character was the most important factor, "and among that group Rubio was the runaway winner with 46 (percent) support," according to the poll. "Perhaps most surprisingly, only 4 (percent) of respondents were concerned about electability. Votes in this category were evenly distributed among all candidates," the poll noted.
•"The findings of this poll support the supposition that Trump is tapping into the frustration some have with a society they believe is too politically correct. 83 (percent) of respondents believed that most people in America were “afraid to truly say what they think for fear of offending someone.” Among this group, Trump leads with nearly 40" percent, according to the poll.
Previous state polls, including a Big Red Poll last year, that showed now-Gov. Matt Bevin trailing Democrat Jack Conway by significant margins drew widespread critiques after Bevin won by almost 9 percent.
Turner said this latest Big Red Poll was in some ways more difficult to conduct because there is no track record for polling for a Kentucky caucus.
"This is a unique thing that's almost impossible to model." he said. "We screened out a lot of people" who were less likely to participate in the caucus. "It's still to some degree a best guess – a well-educated best guess."
The Big Red Poll surveyed 532 likely Republican caucus participants in Kentucky between Feb. 22 and 26. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.25 percent.