More than a third of Republican voters say that Carly Fiorina performed best in the Wednesday night debate on CNN. But debate performances don't translate into vote preference overnight, and Donald Trump maintains his position at the top of the Republican pack, according to the latest NBC News online survey conducted by SurveyMonkey from Wednesday through Friday.
When the candidates' negative performance percentages are subtracted from their positive percentages, Fiorina emerges the clear winner, with a positive 34, whereas Trump nets a positive 2 among Republican voters who watched or followed the debate coverage. Marco Rubio and Ben Carson also received positive reviews from Republican voters who followed the debate, with net scores of 8 and 5. Rand Paul fared poorly, scoring a negative 13.
Republican debate watchers were divided over who appeared most presidential during the debate. Despite a tepid score for his overall debate performance, 17% of Republican voters said that Trump was the most presidential — but that wasn't significantly different than Carly Fiorina or Jeb Bush (14%) or Ben Carson (13%). Marco Rubio was the only other candidate to get a double-digit score on appearing presidential, with 11%.
Debates alone rarely move poll numbers in big ways, and Trump continues to lead the crowded field with 29 percent of Republican and independent voters who lean Republican saying they would cast their vote for him. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina remain on an upward trajectory, now filling in the second and third spots. Jeb Bush is holding steady at 8%, about the same level of support he's seen since April in NBC News/SurveyMonkey polling. During that same period, Scott Walker has seen his support shrink from 12% to just 3% in our latest poll.
However, nearly a third of Republican voters now say that they expect Donald Trump will be the eventual nominee. When we first asked the question back in April, Trump and Fiorina had not yet announced their candidacies, and Scott Walker was leading the field. Back then, 24% thought Jeb Bush would be the eventual nominee. More than 1 in 5 currently say they don't know who will win, showing that there's still plenty of time for candidates to rise and fall during the next few months, as voters start to make up their minds.
Republicans are looking for a change candidate - 37% said that what mattered most in their decision on whom to support in 2016 was someone who could bring about needed change. This may underscore why the current top three vote favorites are all non-politicians, or outsiders to the Republican establishment - Trump, Carson, and Fiorina. Having the "right experience" was only chosen by 3% of Republican voters. Being honest and trustworthy and a strong leader were each selected as the most important by about 1 in 5 Republican voters, and a candidate who shares their values is important to about 1 in 7. Only 3% of Republican voters said it was important for a candidate who cares about people like them.
Among Trump supporters, 46% want someone who can bring about change. Among Bush supporters, 28% want a change agent, but a nearly equal number want someone who is honest and trustworthy.
Taxes and government spending topped the list of issues that are most important to Republican voters in the 2016 election at 27%; nearly the same number said that jobs and the economy (24%) are the most important issue.
A number of issues that came up during the debate could have an impact on how Republicans vote during the upcoming primary season:
- A solid majority of Republican voters (70%) said they are be more likely to support a candidate who would withdraw U.S. support from the multinational deal with Iran.
- Fifty-nine percent said they are less likely to vote for a candidate who supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
- A slim majority (53%) said they are more likely to vote for someone who would send ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq or Syria.
- A candidate who supports defunding Planned Parenthood also gets a positive response from Republican voters, with 61% saying they are more likely to support a candidate who wanted to cut federal funding to the organization.
Hannah Hartig, Stephanie Psyllos, and Josh Clinton contributed reporting.
The NBC News Online Survey was conducted online by SurveyMonkey from September 16-18, 2015 among a national sample of 5,113 adults aged 18 and over. Respondents for this non-probability survey were selected from the nearly three million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. Results have an error estimate of plus or minus 2.0 percentage points. A full description of our methodology and the survey can be found here.
The survey was produced by the Data Analytics Lab of NBC News in conjunction with Penn's Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies with data collection and tabulation conducted by SurveyMonkey.