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On Super Tuesday eve, Donald Trump gets his best poll numbers yet

The Fix's Aaron Blake sets up the stakes for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates on Super Tuesday. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

On Feb. 29, 2012, Mitt Romney finally retook the lead in Real Clear Politics' average of polling of the Republican nomination contest that year for the final time. Months of ups and downs, and -- four years ago Monday -- Romney finally had a clear path to the nomination. In the 2004 Democratic and 2008 Democratic and Republican contests as well, the person leading on Feb. 29 in the polling average went on to win his party's nomination.

Even without the new CNN/ORC poll released on Monday, the 2016 field's leading candidates are clearly identifiable: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

But the new poll also moves Trump and Clinton further away from the people they're leading. On the Democratic side, Clinton's once-shaky lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont looks much firmer, even before her blow-out victory in South Carolina on Saturday. But on the Republican side, the shift since January has been truly amazing.

Remember: In the middle of January, when CNN/ORC last polled, the GOP survey included Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. It included Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. When those candidates dropped out, their support had to go somewhere, and the establishment has been banking on it going to anyone but Trump.

And so:

Trump leads at 49 percent -- his highest numbers in any poll tracked by Real Clear Politics this cycle. The number suggests that the theory that he had a ceiling of support -- that he could never get to 50 percent -- was ... flawed. With Tuesday's numerous contests looming, Trump has the support of about half of his party, in a field with five candidates.

And that consolidation theory is revealed as a consolation theory. As we noted over the weekend, if Ohio Gov. John Kasich were to drop out and every single one of his supporters were to migrate to Sen. Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida would go from trailing by 33 to trailing by 27.

Looking deeper into the polls, we see two shifts from what we thought we knew about the race. First, Trump's no longer just the candidate preferred by poorer, less-educated voters (though that was always a bit overplayed). His strength among college graduates has spiked since January. Second, you can see very clearly how he's eaten into Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's base of support among evangelicals and tea party supporters.

There are some reasonably high margins of error in there; we're talking about subsets of a subset of the full poll. But a 40-point lead, as Trump enjoys over Cruz with tea partiers, is not one that falls into any gray area.

What's more, Republicans generally feel pretty okay with a Trump nomination. He has a much more enthusiastic base of support than Rubio or Cruz.

CNN notes that a quarter of Republicans said they probably or definitely wouldn't support Trump in November -- but also noted that about the same share of voters say that of Rubio and Cruz.

One of the stumbling blocks Trump was expected to face as voting finally rolled around was that less-partisan voters would gravitate toward a candidate they thought could win in November. Who is that? Why, it's Donald Trump, who 63 percent of Republicans think has the best shot in a general election.

Interestingly -- and with the critical caveat that general election polling this far out is still not very useful -- Trump does worse against possible Democratic opponents than Rubio or Cruz in CNN's polling.

But that's an issue for another day, once the nominations are actually settled. Of course if the past three cycles are any indicator, they're all but settled already.