A Race For Third In The GOP Field?

[ Posted Tuesday, September 5th, 2023 – 16:40 UTC ]

I wrote about post-debate polling last week, but I may have drawn my conclusions too soon, if the latest two polls are any indication of movement. So I thought I'd revisit things today, since Labor Day traditionally kicks off the meat of the primary campaign season. (Plus, it'll get me back in the swing of talking about politics, after the 3-day holiday weekend.)

So let's start with the two polls. The first, in the field from August 24th through the 30th, is from the Wall Street Journal. Here are the results:

  • Donald Trump -- 59 percent
  • Ron DeSantis -- 13
  • Nikki Haley -- 8
  • Vivek Ramaswamy -- 5
  • Chris Christie -- 3
  • Mike Pence -- 2
  • Tim Scott -- 2
  • (all others got one percent or less)

The second poll came from CNN, and was in the field from August 25th through the 31st. I should mention that the first Republican debate was on the 23rd, so both of these polls captured people's post-debate responses.

  • Donald Trump -- 52 percent
  • Ron DeSantis -- 18
  • Nikki Haley -- 7
  • Mike Pence -- 7
  • Vivek Ramaswamy -- 6
  • Tim Scott -- 3
  • Chris Christie -- 2
  • (all others got one percent or less)

Obviously, in both cases, Donald Trump is dominating the field, by either 46 points or 34 points. Call it "enough to win," no matter what the spread actually is. And Ron DeSantis is still hanging on in second place, although that's a fairly big divide between the two polls' numbers for him. Not much has changed for either candidate. Trump may have hit the ceiling of his support for the moment (he has hit a plateau which started for him way back in April), and Ron DeSantis may have finally hit bottom -- again, for the moment. His numbers had been sliding, but he seems to have stabilized somewhere right in the middle of the teens.

This makes DeSantis the one for all the others in the race to chase, but none of them have really gotten all that close, at this point. Ramaswamy seemed like he was on track to challenge DeSantis for moment, but then after getting within about three or four points of doing so, DeSantis rose while Ramaswamy fell. Ramaswamy was really the big loser, in terms of public opinion within the GOP base, in the first debate. After dominating the debate with his antics, it turns out people aren't now more eager to vote for him.

Ramaswamy is still in third place in the aggregate polling, but in those two most-recent polls he falls to either fourth or fifth, behind Nikki Haley in both polls and Mike Pence (who tied Haley for third) in the second of them. Both Haley and Pence seem to have gotten a boost from the debate, which isn't too surprising since both turned in strong performances (especially when smacking down Ramaswamy's inexperience).

Now, two polls aren't enough to see whether any of this is a true trend or just an aberration in individual polls. But it will be interesting to watch. Haley in particular looks like she may be building some real movement. In one of the first snap post-election polls conducted, Haley actually got 11 percent -- the first time she's hit double digits yet -- and was only three points behind DeSantis. She beat Ramaswamy in that poll (he only got 7 percent), but those were the only three polls where Haley has managed this feat -- there are five other polls (in the Real Clear Politics aggregate) where she lagged Ramaswamy's numbers.

DeSantis, while he has arrested his polling slide for now, has had every chance to catch fire and hasn't. The media -- especially the rightwing media -- fawned over DeSantis in an attempt to get the GOP base interested in his "I'm a more-competent Trump" schtick, earlier this year. But ever since Trump's first indictment, the base voters have rallied behind Trump and moved away from DeSantis.

Who will be in position to really challenge DeSantis for second place? That is the question I am now wondering. I really thought Ramaswamy might have had a shot at it after his debate performance -- he alone on that stage truly channelled the Trumpian style of politics, after all. He rants and he raves, he tosses insults around with a smile on his face, he spouts falsehoods that are easily fact-checked, he's never met a conspiracy theory he didn't like, and he generally provides a similar level of entertainment as Trump himself. But while the debate crowd mostly loved his antics, the larger Republican voting base doesn't seem to be all that impressed. Ramaswamy's polling numbers rose in the buildup to the debate, but flattened out and have started sliding downwards since. He might be a very quick flash in the pan, in other words, although who knows, another boisterous debate performance could change all of that.

Mike Pence may be slowly building steam, but I have serious doubts as to how high his numbers could ever get. He absolutely enrages the MAGA base, so I just can't even see Pence ever making it into a solid third place. Even if he somehow miraculously did achieve that status (he was tied with Haley for third in that one poll, but only hit sixth place in the other), he could never climb high enough to challenge the second-place candidate, due to his built-in ceiling with the base.

Haley, on the other hand, might actually have a decent shot. She doesn't seem to have a built-in ceiling, at least not as of yet. The fact that she's a woman and the child of immigrants from India may eventually mean she does have a ceiling with Republican voters, but that's nothing but speculation on my part at this point. Haley has walked the tightrope of "saying nice things about the Trump administration" (she pretty much has to, since she served in it), while at the same time not being afraid to make the argument that she could win while Trump won't. She's done a fairly good job of not annoying the MAGA base too much, while still showing she's got core principles and core intelligence that many of the other candidates just don't.

I could see establishment Republicans falling into line behind Haley, to put this another way. In the debate, she more than anyone else presented herself as "the adult in the room," and tried to get the others to face reality (most notably on Ramaswamy's foreign policy lunacy and all the other candidates' hard lines on abortion legislation). That's a rare feat, in Trump's Republican Party, I have to admit. And I could see why more GOP voters might be giving her a closer look.

Of course, as I keep saying, these were just two polls. They may prove to be outliers. We won't even begin to know until we get some polling out of Iowa and New Hampshire -- neither of which has had a poll reported since the debate. Voters in these two states are paying a lot more attention and are a lot more dialed into the race. It's not background noise to them, the way it is for people in other states. So if any trend develops in the race for third place, I would look to the first two states for indications of it.

I simply can't see Mike Pence rising much higher than he is now, but I could see Vivek Ramaswamy catching fire and moving into a much more solid third -- even getting above 10 percent. I could see him training his attacks on DeSantis and perhaps giving him a run for second place too. I could also see Nikki Haley slowly build a wave of support behind her, as more and more of the voters give her a solid look. In the second debate (later this month) what I will be watching more than anything else will be the interaction between DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and Haley. Because I think a race may be on for third place, and once that race is decided (one way or the other), whoever emerges is going to immediately set his or her sights on second place.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


11 Comments on “A Race For Third In The GOP Field?”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Christie and Pence are reviled by the MAGAts and I cannot imagine that to change, at least until the Repugs get Trumpism out of their bloodstream.

    Ramaswamy and Haley are neither Christian nor white so (if one recalls the Repugs lack of enthusiasm for Mormon Mitt Romney back in 2012) both would have better prospects in a general election but are the longest of long shots in the Repug Primary.

    The nomination remains Trump’s to lose.

    Which is good news for our Constitutional Republic.

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Unless he wins. It may be inconceivable, but it's not implausible.

    "You keep using that word, inconceivable. I don't think it means what you think it means."
    -The Princess Bride

  3. [3] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Yeah, yeah, I know — against conventional wisdom Trump won in 2016.

    But recall that required a perfect storm (the DNC screwing Bernie in favor of Hillary, Hillary running her campaign in a defensive crouch, the Russians stealing and publicizing Podesta’s emails aaand…FBI Director Comey.)

    But then we experienced the Trump (mid)administration which resulted in Joe Effing Biden winning 81 million votes! But this time Democrats won the electoral college.

    This followed by J6 and the documents and 91 counts (and, er, counting.) Sure, the Trumpanzies have rallied to his side but there aren’t nearly enough of them to win the general election.

    So I think you transposed these two terms:

    Trump could conceivably win as he already did once. But it is highly implausible given the above.

    There, I fixed it for you!

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    You left out her campaign-sabotaging husband...and her own, ah, campaign deficiencies. She played right into Trump's hands.

    And, you shouldn't have included Comey in your list of perfect storm ingredients.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I just heard some rather depressing news ... I just heard Jason Furman, an economics professor and former Obama advisor, say that he didn't know how to formulate an economic message that outlined why Democratic policy is better than Republican policy when it comes to the economy.

    And, there we have it, folks.


    Did someone say president Trump!?

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Yeah, why is it so hard for a professor to pronounce "voodoo economic death cult"

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Well, that's not the phrase I'd use. ;)

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    The point is that if it is so hard for Dems to craft an economic message then they deserve to have most people, of any party affiliation and of any country for that matter, continue to think that the Republican party is the best economic steward for America.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    When talking with many people here in sunny southern Ontario about Trump, they say they don't like him but he's the one who got the US economy going and will again.

    It's really quite remarkable how Republicans have completely owned the economic message ...

  10. [10] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Good to know we're not the only country full to bursting with the congenitally stupid

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


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