Ben Carson and Donald Trump are neck and neck for the top spot in the first southern contest of the GOP primary season. The Monmouth University Poll of likely South Carolina voters also found that Marco Rubio, who places third overall, is the clear favorite from the so-called “establishment” pack of candidates. However, his so-called “generational appeal” seems to be appealing to a different generation than expected.
Among voters likely to participate in South Carolina’s Republican primary in February, 28% support Ben Carson and 27% support Donald Trump. Marco Rubio places third at 11%, followed by Ted Cruz (9%) and Jeb Bush (7%). None of the other ten candidates in the field scores higher than 2%.
Monmouth’s prior South Carolina poll was conducted in late August just as Carson had started to surge after the first debate. In that poll, Trump led Carson by 30% to 15%. Since then, Trump’s support has held fairly steady, trailing off by only 3 points, while Carson’s support has nearly doubled. Rubio’s share of the vote has grown by 5 points and the Cruz vote has increased by 4 points. Over that same time, Jeb Bush has lost 2 points. Other candidates who have lost support since August include Carly Fiorina (down 4 points to 2%) and home-state senator Lindsey Graham (down 3 points to 1%).
If it came down to choosing from among just four “outsider” candidates, though, more Palmetto State Republicans would back Carson (39%) over Trump (30%). Cruz would get 15% and Fiorina 7%.
“Trump’s South Carolina support has held fairly steady, which means that Carson’s bump has actually come at the expense of almost everyone else in the field,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch.
The poll also presented voters with a hypothetical contest that included eight of the more establishment-type candidates – specifically excluding Trump, Carson, Fiorina, and Cruz. In this fantasy playoff bracket, Marco Rubio leads with 32% support, while Jeb Bush (13%) and Chris Christie (10%) trail far behind. Rounding out the field are Mike Huckabee (8%), Bobby Jindal (4%), Lindsey Graham (4%), Rand Paul (4%), and John Kasich (3%). Another 11% say they would not vote for any of the candidates in this hypothetical match-up. Among current Trump supporters, 26% would go with Rubio from this field of eight, 14% would choose Christie, and 9% select Bush. Among Carson voters, it’s Rubio (36%) in the lead, followed by Bush (13%), Christie (10%), and Huckabee (10%).
“It’s highly unlikely that the GOP contest will continue into the spring without at least one of the outsider candidates still in the race. However, Marco Rubio looks to be the fallback position for many voters should this field ever get winnowed down,” said Murray.
The GOP nomination contest remains very fluid. Just 17% of likely South Carolina primary voters say they are completely decided on their vote choice, while another 39% say they have a strong preference but are still willing to consider other candidates. Another 23% say their current pick is only a slight preference and 20% say they are really undecided even if they name a first choice at this time. Trump’s support appears to be a little more solid than the rest of the field, with 33% of his backers saying their minds are completely made up, compared to just 12% for Carson.
The poll also looked at vote support among key groups of likely primary voters, including:
- Ideology – Carson has improved his standing across the ideological spectrum since August, with increased support among voters who call themselves very conservative (up 10 points to 31%), somewhat conservative (up 14 to 27%), and moderate (up 14 to 24%). Trump has lost support among very conservatives (down 11 points to 22%), stayed steady among somewhat conservatives (down 2 to 29%), and gained support among moderates (up 8 points to 31%).
- Evangelicals – Carson (33%) leads Trump (24%) among the nearly two-thirds of voters who call themselves evangelical Christians. Three months ago, Trump (33%) led Carson (18%) with this group.
- Age – Carson leads the field among voters under 50 years old at 38% support compared to 24% for Trump, 7% for Cruz, 7% for Bush, and 5% for Rubio. Among those age 65 and older, Trump (26%) has a narrow lead, followed closely by Rubio (19%), Carson (17%), Cruz (10%), and Bush (8%).
“The pundits are making a lot out of Rubio’s potential generational appeal. They may have the wrong generation, though. Rubio actually does better in the ‘grandma vote’ than he does among his own age cohort. Carson is actually the top choice of younger voters. We found these same age dynamics in Monmouth’s New Hampshire poll last week,” said Murray. “The fact that younger voters are much stronger for Carson than older voters is reminiscent of Ron Paul’s support four years ago.” According to the National Election Pool exit polls, Paul won the under-30 vote in all four of the early state Republican primary contests in 2012.
Looking at the candidates’ fundamental strengths, Ben Carson continues to earn the most positive reviews from GOP primary voters in South Carolina at 76% favorable and just 12% unfavorable, largely unchanged from August (72% – 9%). Marco Rubio is close behind at 62% favorable and 18% unfavorable, ticking up slightly from 58% – 16%. Donald Trump enjoys a 58% favorable – 29% unfavorable, nearly identical to his August numbers (58% – 28%). Ted Cruz clocks in at 52% favorable – 21% unfavorable rating, up slightly from 47% – 21%. Carly Fiorina has a 51% – 22% rating, down somewhat from the 55% – 15% rating she held in August.
Jeb Bush’s negative 41% favorable – 43% unfavorable rating marks a sharp decline from the positive 52% – 32% rating he held three months ago. Palmetto State Republicans also hold a decidedly negative opinion of their own senator. Lindsey Graham earns a dismal 30% favorable – 53% unfavorable rating, which is slightly worse than his 35% – 50% rating in August.
“It’s difficult for Graham to argue there’s a rationale for his candidacy when his home state numbers are this poor,” said Murray.
The Monmouth University Poll was conducted by telephone from November 5 to 8, 2015 with 401 South Carolina voters likely to vote in the Republican presidential primary. This sample has a margin of error of +4.9 percent. The poll was conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch.