[I]n a hypothetical one-on-one race between the two Republicans, Cruz tops Trump, 51 percent to 43 percent, while Trump beats Rubio in their one-on-one matchup, 52 percent to 45 percent. In a three-way contest featuring the Top 3 Republicans in the poll, Trump gets 40 percent, Cruz 31 percent and Rubio 26 percent, underscoring the overall strengthen out of the outsider/insurgent wing of the Republican Party.
Sometimes, a poll's top-line results only tell part of an important story. Take, for example, the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released late yesterday, just a few hours before the latest Republican debate.
1. Donald Trump: 33% (up from 27% in an NBC poll from early December)
2. Ted Cruz: 20% (down from 22%)
3. Marco Rubio: 13% (down from 15%)
4. Ben Carson: 12% (up from 11%)
5. Jeb Bush: 5% (down from 7%)
5. Chris Christie: 5% (up from 3%)
The remaining candidates were each at 3% support or lower.
Trump's 33% is the highest support any Republican has had in any NBC/WSJ poll this cycle, and on a related note, his 13-point lead over his next closest competitor is the largest advantage any GOP frontrunner has had in this poll in the 2016 cycle.
In other words, at the national level, Trump is actually gaining strength. Indeed, the report on the survey's findings added, "Maybe the most striking finding in this NBC/WSJ poll is the growing GOP acceptance of Trump. Back in March, only 23 percent of Republican primary voters said they could see themselves supporting the real-estate mogul. Now that number stands at 65 percent."
Looking ahead, the Republican field is all but certain to narrow, creating an opportunity for a very different dynamic, though the party establishment shouldn't get its hopes up just yet.
Consider what happens when the GOP field shrinks to two or three candidates:
For Cruz, this can (and almost certainly will) serve as the basis for an interesting pitch to would-be Republican allies: "Looking for the anti-Trump? I can beat him one-on-one, and Rubio can't."
The question then becomes whether GOP insiders are, in fact, looking for the anti-Trump. More on that later.