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 peak, while 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.