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GOP Voters Want An Outsider. Can Marco Rubio Convince Them He Is One?

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 7/11/2015 Ariel Edwards-Levy
ATHENA IMAGE © Scott Eisen via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is having a moment in the Republican establishment. Since the Oct. 28 Republican debate, he's racked up five congressional endorsements, including his first three from other senators .

That represents substantial movement in the so-called "invisible primary" among GOP leaders, who've been slower than usual to weigh in on the race so far. Endorsements from party elites, including governors and members of Congress, have often correlated with a candidate's success with voters.

But the endorsements also tie Rubio more closely to a Republican establishment most voters want little to do with. While GOP voters like their current presidential field , they're both deeply unhappy with their current elected officials and mistrustful of the party's ability to choose the best candidates for office.

In a new HuffPost/YouGov survey , Republican and Republican-leaning voters say by a 45-point margin that they prefer an outsider candidate to one who's favored by the party establishment.

"I really want less of a politician. I want a normal person," one Manchester, New Hampshire, woman explained Tuesday during a focus group of Republican "Walmart Moms"  (defined by the pollsters as "voters with children age 18 or younger at home and who shopped at Walmart at least once in the past month").

"I know some people are concerned they need government experience -- I really think that there's enough politicians there to back them up," she added to laughter from the group.

GOP voters' view of whether their top-polling candidates are outsiders or establishment figures is guided, but not entirely delineated, by whether or not they've held office.

Current frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson are almost universally seen as outsiders in the HuffPost/YouGov poll.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who's often clashed with his party's leadership, is perceived by a narrower margin as an outsider.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose numbers have recently flagged, is regarded as an establishment favorite. So, to a lesser extent, is Rubio -- a notion he took an apparent stab at dispelling during the latest debate, using a question on his relative youth to suggest that he'd faced similar opposition within his party.

"That's exactly what the Republican establishment said, too, 'Why don't you wait in line?'" he told CNBC's Carl Quintanilla.

Perhaps more effectively, he also leveraged a question about his recent financial problems to stress his modest background as the student loan-burdened son of a bartender and maid.

That detail resonated with the New Hampshire focus group. Asked to name the race's outsider candidates, they jumped unprompted to Rubio, even before ticking off more obvious names like Trump, Carson or Carly Fiorina.

Despite his current office, one woman reasoned, Rubio wasn't born into a political legacy or family wealth -- something that resonated with her own economic struggles.

"He just didn't have a lot of money," she said.

There's evidence that Rubio's modest background and his financial mishaps are more of a positive than a negative. In a June HuffPost/YouGov poll , Republican voters said by a net 8-point margin that a candidate's personal experience with debt was an asset, not a liability.

Rubio "has a good financial story to tell -- or at least one that is relatable to a lot of Americans," his spokesman, Alex Conant, argued at the time.

There's also the possibility that the clamoring for an anti-establishment nominee could fade, even if Republicans' deep-seated anger toward the political system remains.

Voters' stated preference for a certain type of candidate often turns out to be mainly a reflection of the person they're already supporting . Democrats, for instance, held an aversion toward older candidates while Ronald Reagan and John McCain was running, an opinion which seems to have since disappeared. And while the GOP has been unhappy with Washington for a while,  Republicans as recently as March vastly preferred "experience and a proven record" over "new ideas and a different approach" -- until Donald Trump came along, making it hard to tell whether his popularity explains that viewpoint or vice-versa.

In the former case, if an establishment-friendly political candidate picks up steam, Republicans' overwhelming preference for an outsider might not prove so defining next year. 

If it's the latter, though, politicians like Rubio will have to figure out the best way of selling themselves to voters as an antidote to the political system they currently work in.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Nov. 2-4 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here . More details on the polls' methodology are available here .

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov's reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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