Polling the Republican Primary Electorate on the Eve of the First Debate

Heading into the first debate of the 2016 campaign season, there are many unanswered questions. Donald Trump has rocketed to the top of the Republican primary field in most surveys, but many pundits are at a loss to explain what’s behind his rise. We wanted to explore this further.

Using Google Consumer Surveys, we asked 860 likely Republican primary voters on Monday and Tuesday for their thoughts on the field, and Donald Trump in particular. The way we polled these voters was an experiment for us. With the challenges facing traditional forms of polling, we’re interested in figuring out what’s next and how new methods like Google Consumer Surveys stack up against the tried and true “gold standard” methods we also rely on to serve our clients.

First, some notes on the field at large, starting with the ballot test. Trump emerges as the clear leader, with 32% to 13% for Jeb Bush, 11% for Scott Walker, 7% for Ben Carson, 6% for Ted Cruz, and 5% for both John Kasich and Marco Rubio.

How do supporters of various candidates stack up ideologically, on both fiscal and social issues? We asked respondents to rate themselves on a 7-point scale (from very liberal to very conservative) on both fiscal and economic, and social and cultural issues. Below, we’ve plotted these average scores for supporters of each candidate. Ted Cruz has the most fiscally conservative supporters, while Mike Huckabee has the most socially conservative supporters. On the moderate side, Chris Christie has the most fiscally moderate supporters while Rand Paul has the most socially moderate supporters (by a fair amount).

We also asked people to tell us in their own words why they liked their preferred candidate, and grouped these responses. From authenticity for Donald Trump to experience for many governors to ideology for candidates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, the reasons for supporting a single candidate are varied and distinct for each candidate. Typically, one reason dominates for each candidate, a clear test of how well each candidate has defined themselves.

Why do Republican primary voters like Donald Trump? Later on, we asked them specifically about this. Offered the chance to say they liked Trump because of his authenticity or because of his views on policy, voters overwhelmingly chose authenticity. (A third said they disliked Trump.)

Looking deeper at the words and phrases Trump supporters used to describe him, his perceived boldness and authenticity were volunteered by 50% of Trump supporters. His status as a political outsider came in second at 19%. At the bottom of the list? Immigration, which was cited by just 3% of Trump supporters.

And here are the specific words Trump supporters used. “Politician” came in first, to describe what Trump is not. Concepts like honesty, straight talk, and “telling it like it is” also resonated.

Which candidates lead amongst the one third of voters who dislike Donald Trump? Jeb Bush leads amongst these respondents with 21%, followed by Scott Walker at 14%, and John Kasich at 9%.

We’ll now take a brief look at which segments of the electorate break out on Trump and the rest of the field. First, we grouped respondents by whether they were more conservative on fiscal issues, more conservative on social issues, or were equally as conservative on both. Trump posts strong leads with social conservatives and those who rate themselves equally socially or fiscally conservative; amongst those who were more fiscally than socially conservative, it’s a tighter race.

Much has also been written about the education gap in Trump’s support, and our survey finds no differently. Trump wins nearly half of votes from those with a high school degree or less, but still leads amongst those with a college degree or higher, albeit with just over a quarter of likely primary voters’ support.

Regionally, Trump runs strongest in his Northeast home base with 38% support, followed by 35% support in the South, 31% in the West, and 27% in the Midwest.

Going into the debate, Trump leads nationwide. But with ten candidates on the main debate stage, tonight has the potential to lay the groundwork for a new dynamic in the Republican primary. We look forward to sharing more research we’ll be conducting after tonight’s debate.

Echelon Insights uses research, analytics, and digital intelligence to drive data-driven decisions for innovative organizations. Follow us on Twitter, and learn more at EchelonInsights.com.