2016 Republicans, Debates, Poll Watch

Poll Watch: Episode 7 (Debate Fallout)

September 20, 2015

The first major post-debate poll is out from CNN.  It’s helpful for a couple reasons.  First, it’s first, the initial mainstream poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the last debate.  For those of us who want to declare winners and losers, here’s some statistical evidence.

Second, and more important, CNN polls frequently, so we can compare results to previous polls, one taken a little over a week after the first debate, another taken a little more than a week before the second.

With three data points, there’s a basis for any amount of small sample size over-speculation.  Let the games begin!

Trump is Doing Just Fine

Rumors of The Donald’s demise are greatly exaggerated.  It makes for a great narrative. Having changing front runners is more interesting.  Many pundits, especially those with GOP leanings, are waiting to see traditional order restored.  Plus, he stunk in the debate and cancelled a cattle call appearance in South Carolina the next day.

The new poll has him at 24%, down from 32% in the same CNN poll taken over Labor Day weekend.  It’s his worst showing in a few weeks.  It also isn’t a problem for him.

A month ago, CNN had Trump at the same 24%.  He’s temporarily given back a few gains, but is well within his average for the past 6-8 weeks.  In the immediate aftermath of the first debate, a Rasmussen Poll (CNN waited over a week) had him down 7 to 8 points from where he was before the debate.

By the time other pollsters caught up a few days later, Trump’s position was restored.  There’s a structural reason for this.  During a debate, Trump might get the most attention, but other candidates get space too.  In the immediate aftermath, people talk about which candidates did best, so Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio get attention and a poll bounce (this has happened twice).

As time passes, the exposure gap increases again and Trump begins to advance.  More importantly, he’s back in control of who he wants to attack, what topics to talk about, which shows to appear on.

The debate stumbles (remember, everybody thought the Megyn Kelly spat was a mistake at first), help keep getting Trump booked, as his seeming frailty is a story.

As usual, The Donald appeared on Sunday shows today, taking about his new controversy, whether he should have rebuked a town hall questioner who referred to President Obama as a Muslim.  Before long, Trumpists and prospective Trumpists will have forgotten all about Rubio making him seem uninformed.

It may turn out Trump does not consistently poll above 30% anytime soon.  In a field of this size, that’s very hard to maintain, even in individual states.

With the difficulty of any two candidates taking up more than 50% (that’s the cap so far), as long as Trump remains in the mid-20s, it’s mathematically impossible for anyone to get ahead of him in more than the occasional poll.

This lets The Donald continue to brag about his poll placements.  This CNN poll has him 9 ahead of Fiorina, 10 ahead of Ben Carson.  Regardless of what may have happened over the past week, regardless of who won the debate exchange, Trump still leads his rivals, polling almost as well as the two combined.

I think Fiorina is a somewhat more likely nominee, but I thought that 2 weeks ago and 4 weeks ago too.  Trump’s odds remain low but not microscopic.

Goldilocks Fiorina

It looks like the candidate who has played everything perfectly got the perfect post-debate bounce.  She’s up to 15%, just ahead of Carson, a bit further ahead of Rubio and Bush.

Her two most recent CNN results were 3 and 5%, so definite improvement, though not as much as it may appear.  The Rasmussen poll taken closer to the first debate had her at 9.  My guess is Carly holds a little more of her momentum this time, but some slippage is likely.

However, Fiorina consistently polls a little better in Iowa than nationally and better in New Hampshire than Iowa.  As a rule, more exposure, better result.  She already had high favorability ratings, but many voters may have wanted to see how really viable she was as a contender.

This can only help.  If she progresses in the early states, perhaps grabbing a small lead in New Hampshire, it creates a positive feedback loop (NOTE: a poll that Real Clear Politics does not include in their listings had her ahead in a snap NH poll taken immediately after the debate).

So, Fiorina gets the benefit of a bit more exposure and favorable momentum, without rocketing so high she becomes the immediate target for many candidates.

Given her early underdog status and funding limitations, Carly is running a very lean campaign, relying on her PAC for logistical assistance in addition to advertising support.  It will take her a little time to turn the money presumably flooding in into good campaign infrastructure.

She needs to ramp up to leverage the opportunity and handle more scrutiny, but campaigns who add too many staffers too quickly often implode (more on that next post), so doing well enough to get donors on board but not TOO well is perfect.  Better to reinforce those wings before she gets too close to the sun.

Cloudy Diagnosis, Uncertain Prognosis

So Dr. Carson may have lost ground and that might matter, but maybe he didn’t and it doesn’t make a difference anyhow.

Here’s what the tests show:

Before Debate: 23% (CBS), 19% (CNN)

Now: 14% (CNN)

That’s worse, any way you look at it.  Before he was a clear #2, as close as 4 points to Trump in the CBS survey.  Now he’s 10 back, in 3rd (though Carson actually trailed Trump by 13 in last CNN poll).

If you check his records going a bit further back, it’s less clear.  The mid-August CNN poll had him at 9%, trailing Trump by 15 and Bush by 4.  Some say Carson won the first debate because his standing improved the most between the first and second event.

But that improvement came the further that first debate was in the rear-view mirror.  If that debate made him, shouldn’t the impact have happened sooner?  It may have made more voters pay attention, but they didn’t convert immediately.

The Rasmussen post-Debate #1 poll had Fiorina 1 point ahead of Carson, just like this CNN poll does.  They were each just under 10 points behind Trump, just like now.  The only difference is all three have higher numbers than 6 weeks ago.

The best indicator for Carson is Iowa polling, particularly how he looks 10-14 days from now when things have settled in.  Any possible Carson nomination begins with an Iowa victory.  In the days leading up to the debate, he pulled virtually even with Trump in the mid-20s.

As long as he remains in striking distance at the end of the month, he’s probably fine for now, regardless of what you may think about his comments regarding the fitness of Muslims to serve as president.  Can’t begin to speculate whether that helps or hurts him with his voter base (gun to the temple, it helps).

It hurts him with any mainstream conservative who might have considered him, particularly in the immediate debate aftermath, but I don’t think that’s where his polling support was coming from.

Same Old, Same Old, For Many

Rubio is at 11%, the best he’s done in a while.  It’s good news for him, but doesn’t prove much.  Rasmussen had him at 10% after the last one.  Where he stands a couple days before a debate is more important than where he is after.

Since he always gets a boost, as soon as he’s within striking distance before, he’s a real immediate threat to someone instead of the candidate many of us think will catch fire eventually.

Last time, he lost 20-30% of his support 10 days post-debate, 50% or more after a month.  That’s the comparison.

Jeb is at 9%, having exited the debate slightly better than he entered it.  This is in line with last time too.  His core supporters thought he did well enough, but he didn’t pick up anybody new.

He still faces a very uphill battle.  Unless Rubio and Fiorina both completely disqualify themselves over the next few months, Jeb will find it very hard to put together a consistent 20-25% base of support to finish in the top 2 or 3 in Iowa or New Hampshire.

The key point for Jeb would be reaching 12-15% on a consistent basis, which would indicate positive momentum rather than having potentially hit his floor.

Ted Cruz registered at 6%.  Previous CNN polls had him between 5 and 7 percent.  Rasmussen had him at 7% last time and 6% is his most common national poll result.

Until Cruz figures out how to get Trump or Carson voters to prefer him, either due yogis adjustments or their failings, there’s nothing much to see here.

Huckabee is also at 6%.  Sometimes he’s in the 6-7 range, sometimes 2-4.  He’s just distinct enough, does just well enough debating and has just enough of a brand to keep from falling out of the Top 10.  Has enough limitations to stay out of the top 4 or 5.  No noticeable change.

Despite what The Donald says, Rand Paul isn’t really in 11th place.  He’s probably more like 7th or 8th, which keeps him around for a bit as he ponied up on Friday for a separate Kentucky presidential caucus so he can continue to run for president without sacrificing his ability to run for re-election in the senate.  He’s hit his floor and can only rise from here, but there’s also a temporary ceiling not far above.

Chris Christie got a little post-debate poll improvement.  He probably did last time too. Many people think Christie debates well, but he’s usually not their first choice.  His poll movements are usually less than the margin of error, so it’s hard to tell if he jumped from 1 to 3 because of the debate or sampling changes.

The Undercard Candidates Got No Benefit

The combined poll support for Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki was 1%

After a lengthy debate with 6 million viewers, where each candidate got more time than Trump did in the main event, they lost ground.

With no rules in place for the next debate, it’s very unlikely another junior debate gets scheduled.  With these candidates doing so poorly, the justification for including them thins.

Walker is Now a Rounding Error

The implosion is officially complete.  The previous front runner is below 1 percent.  There’s no recovery from this as it shows he has no core base of support.

Other candidates have rebounded from mini-collapses to win Iowa, but none ever dropped to this level.  There’s a huge difference between 5.0% and 0.5% as your floor.  One is a problem, another may have him out of the race by the end of the month.

Kasich in Trouble

John Kasich registered at 4% right after the first debate.  Having just entered the race, surging in New Hampshire on the back of an ad barrage, things were looking up.  Most surveys in mid-August, including CNN, had him between 4 and 6%.

Several weeks have passed.  Jeb Bush, his most direct competitor, lost a few points.  Christie, another possible obstacle, stayed even at best.  Walker imploded.  Those were the three candidates Kasich most needed to take support from.

Despite those favorable developments, Kasich is now at 2%.  Pre-debate surveys were usually in the 2-3% range so it’s not a fluke.  He’s dropped from 2nd to 4th in New Hampshire, now trailing Fiorina, Carson and Trump and no longer ahead of Jeb.

Whether the problem is tone (my guess) or just the end of being the new guy, if Kasich does not arrest the decline soon, he may find the electable establishment mantle is locked down by Rubio or Fiorina before he can get planted.  Any Jeb comeback would hurt too.

Scott Walker would trade places in a second, but he’s taking on water.

Back with more in the next few days as the Iowa and New Hampshire numbers come in.

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