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Next Phase of the Republican Campaign May Look More Like What We've Seen in Past Elections

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Carly Fiorina, left, looks on as John Kasich speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Wednesday, Sept. 16. Carly Fiorina, left, looks on as John Kasich speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Wednesday, Sept. 16. Mark J. Terrill/AP

One or even two opin­ion polls don’t con­sti­tute a trend, and it’s fool­hardy to put too much em­phas­is on such a small sampling. But the first live-tele­phone-in­ter­view sur­vey re­leased after last week’s Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial de­bate, the CNN/Opin­ion Re­search Cor­por­a­tion Poll con­duc­ted Septem­ber 17-19, will get—and de­serves—a lot of at­ten­tion. It gives Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers and strategists, at least those of a tra­di­tion­al bent, the first re­as­sur­ing news in a while: It sug­gests that sup­port for the can­did­ates who are most anti-es­tab­lish­ment may have reached—or passed—its peakwhile oth­er can­did­ates are show­ing signs of life. 

The poll of 444 voters (two-thirds of them Re­pub­lic­ans and the rest GOP-lean­ing in­de­pend­ents) put Don­ald Trump, the real es­tate ty­coon, still in first place, with 24 per­cent. But he has slipped by 8 per­cent­age points since the pre­vi­ous sur­vey, con­duc­ted Septem­ber 4-8. Re­tired neur­o­lo­gist Ben Car­son, the oth­er com­pletely out­side-the-box can­did­ate, also lost ground, drop­ping 5 points, to 14 per­cent. Both de­clines fell with­in the poll’s mar­gin of er­ror of +/- 4.5 per­cent, but my hunch is that the shift in Re­pub­lic­ans’ at­ti­tudes is real. 

Oth­er can­did­ates, as they’re gain­ing vis­ib­il­ity, are at­tract­ing more sup­port. The biggest be­ne­fi­ciary: Carly Fior­ina, the Hew­lett Pack­ard CEO, who quin­tupled her sup­port—from 3 per­cent to 15 per­cent. This vaul­ted her in­to second place, be­hind Trump, and a per­cent­age point ahead of Car­son. Marco Ru­bio more than tripled his share of Re­pub­lic­an sup­port­ers, from 3 per­cent to 11 per­cent. No one else in the crowded field moved very much in the poll, gain­ing or los­ing a per­cent­age point or so. Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er dropped from 5 per­cent in the early Septem­ber poll to less than 1 per­cent, no doubt a factor in his de­cision to drop out of the race Monday af­ter­noon.

A second poll, is­sued on Monday morn­ing, showed sim­il­ar res­ults. It was an on­line sur­vey con­duc­ted Septem­ber 16-18, after the de­bate, for NBC News by Sur­vey Mon­key. I’m not com­pletely on-board yet with on­line polling, but the res­ults of the sample of 2,070 Re­pub­lic­ans are worth con­sid­er­ing next to CNN’s more tra­di­tion­al live-in­ter­view sur­vey. Trump led the field here, too, but with 29 per­cent of the vote (5 points above the CNN show­ing). Car­son was in second place, with 14 per­cent (as with CNN), and Fior­ina was in third, at 11 per­cent, a gain of just 3 points since be­fore the de­bate (and 4 points less than CNN found). Jeb Bush fin­ished next (8 per­cent), fol­lowed by Ru­bio, Ted Cruz, and Mike Hucka­bee (all at 7 per­cent), and by Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and Rick San­tor­um (all at 3 per­cent). John Kasich drew just 2 per­cent. 

For con­ven­tion­ally minded Re­pub­lic­ans, a couple of things are worth not­ing. Trump and Car­son, the GOP con­tenders who quite clearly know the least about pub­lic policy—and show little in­terest in learn­ing—dropped a com­bined 13 points, from 51 per­cent to 38 per­cent in CNN’s polls. This sug­gests that, after two Re­pub­lic­an de­bates, even voters who des­per­ately want to give es­tab­lish­ment politi­cians the middle fin­ger are tir­ing at last of can­did­ates who run on con­tent-free rhet­or­ic and in­tel­lec­tu­ally bank­rupt plat­it­udes. 

Fior­ina is just as much an out­sider as Trump and Car­son are. Still, her per­form­ances in both rounds of de­bates have made it ob­vi­ous that she has stud­ied up on the is­sues and shows far more in­sight on pub­lic policy than do Trump, Car­son, or even many long-time elec­ted of­fi­cials. Her leap in the polls re­flects that. Sim­il­arly, if Ru­bio wer­en’t so hand­some (note: this is a ref­er­ence to the looks of a man, not a wo­man), he’d prob­ably be called a nerd; in less than five years in the Sen­ate, he has worked hard to mas­ter this new set of is­sues and has done well with it.

It is clear that many Re­pub­lic­ans—half of the party, more or less—are frus­trated, angry, and des­per­ately want change. That’s fine, but it is some­what re­as­sur­ing if they seek change from people who work hard to mas­ter the con­tent. One can agree or dis­agree with Fior­ina on the is­sues—or, for that mat­ter, with Sens. Cruz or Paul, who also in­hab­it that anti-es­tab­lish­ment, anti-Wash­ing­ton camp—but all of them make their case in­tel­li­gently. Cer­tainly Fior­ina will face chal­lenges—not­ably, de­fend­ing her much-cri­ti­cized per­form­ance at the helm of HP. But she has be­come a force to be reckoned with, and not one that em­bar­rasses the GOP.

The com­pet­i­tion for pree­m­in­ence in the party’s more es­tab­lish­ment-ori­ented wing, which usu­ally drives the GOP’s nom­in­a­tions, now looks wide open. Ru­bio, Christie, Kasich, and Bush—one sen­at­or, two gov­ernors, one ex-gov­ernor—are all clearly in the hunt. Things may be dif­fer­ent this year, but my hunch is that the race for the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion will, at the end, pit an angry out­sider against a more con­ven­tion­al can­did­ate. 

It should be noted that the can­did­ates’ own poll­sters have be­come in­creas­ingly crit­ic­al of me­dia polling in this race. Their beef: None of the polls use samples de­rived from voter files, which would as­sure that all re­spond­ents are ac­tu­ally re­gistered to vote (and usu­ally re­port when and how of­ten re­spond­ents have voted in the past). Polls this sum­mer that re­lied on voter rolls showed Trump and Car­son lead­ing but by smal­ler mar­gins than the pub­licly is­sued polls. This cri­ti­cism is val­id, but the me­dia polls are con­sist­ent over time in how they choose their samples, so they meas­ure move­ment—apples-to-apples—in the can­did­ates’ stand­ing. 

The bot­tom line: The Trump/Car­son surge is no longer snow­balling and may have topped out, while oth­er can­did­ates are start­ing to pick up sup­port. The next phase of this cam­paign may start to look more like what we ex­pec­ted to see, and less like what we saw over the sum­mer.

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