HANNAH HARTIG, JOHN LAPINSKI and STEPHANIE PSYLLOS
Mar 29th 2016 6:12AM
With just three candidates left in the Republican primary race, Donald Trump now holds 48 percent support of registered Republicans and Republican-leaners, according to the NBC News|SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking poll.
This is more than 20 points higher than his second-place competitor, Ted Cruz -- who now enjoys 27 percent support. John Kasich got a boost of 2 points this week and holds third place with 18 percent support.
The question in the Republican race, however, is no longer whether Trump is the clear front-runner, but whether he will reach the magic delegate number of 1,237 -- and, if not, whether Republicans will support him as their party's nominee going forward. These are big questions that have implications for the direction of the Republican Party and, ultimately, the outcome of the 2016 presidential race.
There has been intense discussion about whether the 2016 presidential primary season has caused permanent harm to the Republican Party with "establishment" candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio failing to gain traction and "outsider" candidates like Trump and Ben Carson performing well.
Although it is looking more and more certain that Trump will at least hold a plurality of delegates headed into the convention, not all Republicans agree that this means he should be the party's nominee if he fails to get a majority.
RELATED: Donald Trump's potential running mates
Donald Trump's potential running mates, VPs
Poll: Trump nearly at 50 percent support among Republicans nationally
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich could provide Trump with exactly what he is looking for in a running mate — an experienced lawmaker who pushed legislation through Congress for years.
Though he has been actively aboard the Kasich bandwagon in recent days, Gingrich has come to Trump's defense regarding both the establishment backlash to his candidacy and the controversy the frontrunner found himself in after initially failing in a CNN interview to disavow support from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
(Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence
Pence is rumored to be one of the final few people on Donald Trump's short list to be running mate. He appeared with him mere days before Trump was expected to announce his decision, and even met with Trump's family.
Pence found himself in the spotlight in recent months after defending Indiana's religious liberty law that was criticized by many as being discriminatory against the LGBT community.
(Photo by REUTERS/John Sommers II)
A wildcard choice for sure, some began to wonder if Donald Trump might consider naming his daughter as his running mate after Sen. Bob Corker suggested the move shortly after taking himself out of the mix.
Ivanka, who would turn 35 mere days before the election, has not addressed the rumors, but brother Eric backed her.
(Photo by REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)
The 57-year-old retired lieutenant general has been advising the campaign on foreign affairs for months, but as Flynn's under-the-radar candidacy gained steam as Trump's decision drew near.
Conservative supporters have warned that Flynn isn't sufficiently tough on social issues.
(Photo by REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is the only 2016 GOP presidential candidate who has endorsed Trump since leaving the race.
Christie could help Trump with more moderate GOP voters, and he certainly has the bombastic personality that would serve as a useful surrogate for Trump, though the two also fiercely criticized each other when they were both candidates in the race.
Back in November, Trump said Christie could have a "place" on his ticket.
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is the only sitting senator to endorse Trump — and he has already been tapped to lead Trump's national-security advisory committee.
"A movement is afoot that must not fade away," Sessions said during the Alabama rally where he announced his support last month.
Sessions is one of the staunchest supporters of Trump's hard-line plan to crack down on illegal immigration. The senator could also give Trump credibility in the South.
(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts was the first current or former senator to endorse Trump. He was known in the Senate as a moderate, and he could help pick up votes with some in the less conservative wing of the Republican Party.
He has supported abortion rights and is in favor of banning assault weapons, but he carries a blue-collar, populist persona. Brown memorably drove a pickup truck to campaign events during his 2010 Senate run in Massachusetts, which was to fill a vacant seat.
During a January event in New Hampshire, Trump said Brown was cut out of "central casting" and could be his vice president. Brown said at the time that Trump was "the next president of the United States."
(Photo by Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
"I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular," Gov. Paul LePage of Maine said while announcing his support for the GOP frontrunner last month on "The Howie Carr Show."
The governor is comparable to Trump when it comes to provocative remarks. In January, LePage found himself at the center of a national firestorm after he made some racially tinged comments about out-of-state drug dealers who come into Maine and "impregnate a young white girl" before leaving.
"Now I get to defend all the good stuff he says," LePage has said of Trump.
LePage also entered politics after a successful business career, but he was reportedly staunchly opposed to Trump's candidacy before suddenly coming on board.
(Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Last week, BuzzFeed reported that advisers close to Huckabee thought the vice-president nod was in the cards for their guy.
Of all the former 2016 White House contenders, Huckabee may be closest to Trump ideologically. Huckabee struck a populist tone on cultural issues and, like Trump, vowed to protect Social Security and Medicare if elected.
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Aside from a few brushups in the fall, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio has barely touched Trump along the trail. The same can be said for Trump, whose most brutal attack against Kasich is that he "got lucky" because of the natural-gas reserves in his state.
It has been rumored that Trump would be interested in Kasich as his running mate, though Trump has also recently started criticizing Kasich on the campaign trail.
Kasich has the political experience that Trump says he's seeking. Kasich also hails from the Midwest, one of the most competitive regions in the past few presidential races.
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
It has been an ongoing rumor that Gov. Rick Scott of Florida will endorse Trump after Scott wrote a gushing op-ed article in USA Today in January.
Like Trump, Scott rose to power from the business world. But Scott also has clout in the largest general-election swing state. In addition, he has six years of government experience behind him after being elected to office in 2010.
John McCain's running mate in 2008, Sarah Palin was a big get for Trump when she endorsed the frontrunner over Ted Cruz, whom she had vigorously campaigned for during his Senate run in 2012.
If Trump is interested in a sharp break with the Republican establishment, picking Palin would certainly send that signal.
It's an open question, however, as to whether she boosted or hindered McCain's run during the 2008 race.
(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Oklahoma Republican Governor Mary Fallin makes remarks before the opening of the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington, in this February 22, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Theiler/Files
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There has been intense speculation that Republican Party leaders may put forth a new candidate at the Republican convention if Trump fails to win the requisite number of delegates to secure the nomination. After Rubio's exit from the GOP race, former House Speaker John Boehner said, "If we don't have a nominee who can win on the first ballot, I'm for none of the above. They all had a chance to win. None of them won. So I'm for none of the above."
A majority -- 57 percent -- of registered Republicans and Republican-leaners disagree, however, and say that Trump should win the Republican nomination for president if he wins a plurality (but not necessarily a majority) of delegates. About a quarter (27 percent) do not think he should win the nomination and 14 percent are not sure.
When looking at this question among Republicans who support someone other than Trump, however, a small majority (53 percent) say that he should not be the party's nominee if he fails to win a majority of delegates before the convention. This opinion varies slightly between Cruz and Kasich voters, with more Cruz supporters (32 percent) saying Trump should be the nominee than Kasich supporters (24 percent).
The other critical question for the Republican Party and, ultimately, Trump's campaign is whether he could effectively unite his party's voters in order to beat the Democratic candidate in November. As Hillary Clinton and Trump emerge as the serious favorites, the question becomes: Would Republicans be satisfied with a Trump vs. Clinton match-up in the fall? Which Republicans would consider ditching their party for a third-party candidate?
According to results from our latest weekly election tracking poll, just 52 percent of registered Republicans and Republican-leaners would be satisfied with a choice between Clinton and Trump on the general election ballot. Thirty percent say they would seriously consider voting for a third party candidate.
Of course, the primary has not yet been decided for either party and there are several months remaining until voters have to make their decision in the general election. Satisfaction with candidate choices will almost certainly vary depending on the remaining primaries as well as the months of campaigning left for any potential candidate. One thing is certain, however -- a number of hurdles remain for any Republican candidate looking ahead to the general election this fall.
The NBC News|SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking poll was conducted online March 21 through March 27, 2016 among a national sample of 6,521 adults aged 18 and over, including 5,741 who say they are registered to vote. Respondents for this non-probability survey were selected from the nearly three million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. Results have an error estimate of plus or minus 1.7 percentage points. For full results and methodology for this weekly tracking poll, please click here.