CBS News poll: Trump leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, where retail campaigning hasn’t closed the gap

CBS News poll: Trump leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, where retail campaigning hasn’t closed the gap

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The conventional wisdom is that retail politics — the door-knocking, hand-shaking grassroots campaigning for months before the primaries — make Iowa and New Hampshire different from what we see nationally. And like a lot of conventional wisdom these days, that’s looking outdated.

Today, national frontrunner and former President Donald Trump also leads the Republican primary field comfortably in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And most of his supporters are backing him enthusiastically. His current margins would translate to him getting half of Iowa’s delegates and the lion’s share in New Hampshire.

GOP voters in both states overwhelmingly say their focus is on national, not state, issues. 

Nor is there much provinciality when it comes to asking for time in-state. Trump’s lead is much the same whether people feel it’s important to see candidates stump in Iowa or New Hampshire, or not.

As in years past, these states might share a place on the calendar, but not always an ideology. 

One important difference today is on abortion. In Iowa, most GOP caucus voters would not only have abortion be illegal, but would also criminally punish a woman for having one. That’s not the case in New Hampshire.

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In another gauge of what’s driving the campaign, voters in both states report seeing ads on television and social media, more than any direct contact with a campaign or a volunteer.

All of the above will probably still matter on the organizational front, when people actually have to caucus or stand in line to vote this winter.

The impact of local political endorsers, like governors and congressional leaders, looks limited at best. It may be that in an era of big-spending campaigns and social media — when voters can hear the opinions of so many — top elected officials, even friends and family, don’t necessarily carry that much weight. That said, it may also be a function of a contest where the leading candidate is so well-known, and voters don’t need endorsements as much to get to know the field.

For now, however, the dominant power of being a well-known and still popular former president in Republican circles appears to have the same outsized impact on preference in these states as it does nationally.

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Trump’s perceived strengths, including electability

Trump’s big lead comes because, of the qualities tested, he does very well on being seen as prepared and as a strong leader. Few describe Trump as likable. While fewer than half say he understands people like them or describe him as a “true conservative,” he nonetheless has a dominant lead among self-described conservative voters. 

Perceived electability is also very important, and Trump is the only candidate whom a majority of Republican primary voters think would definitely beat President Biden.

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More broadly, Republican primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire differ somewhat on the best strategy to create a winning coalition for the general election. And it appears to matter to their vote choice. 

In Iowa, a slight majority of Republican primary voters say it’s more important to motivate the base than appeal to moderates and independents. In New Hampshire, appealing to moderates and independents is more prevalent — probably because there simply are more independents involved there.

Trump leads overwhelmingly among those who think the nominee should appeal to the base. But among those who prefer a nominee with wider appeal, Trump drops below majority support — even if those voters haven’t coalesced on an alternative.

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The second tier: Voters are still shopping around, but the non-Trump vote is splintered

In what seems a race for a distant second, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stands in Iowa about where he’s been in our national tracking. In New Hampshire, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie are doing better than they’ve done nationally, primarily because they are doing better among independent voters likely to turn out in the Republican primary than among out-and-out Republicans.

Even if these two states don’t always pick the eventual nominee, they historically have played another role in the primary campaign. They often winnow the field, and sometimes a single alternative to the frontrunner emerges. There are plenty of possibilities for that to occur this year, but as of now, support for candidates in the second tier remains very fragmented.

In both states, most voters are still considering multiple candidates. In fact, just a fifth in Iowa and about a quarter in New Hampshire are considering Trump and nobody else, making his support “floor” a bit lower in these early states than it looks nationwide. Most of Trump’s backers are considering at least one other candidate, and these voters are more likely to say they’re supporting him “with some reservations” than Trump-and-only-Trump voters are. And in both states, only-Trump voters are outnumbered by the third of the electorate who aren’t considering him at all.

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Voters considering choices other than Trump say they are doing so to keep their options open. They also show concern about Trump’s controversies and legal fights, and think the party should consider someone new. Few say it’s because he could lose to Mr. Biden. And few say they don’t like Trump personally or that he doesn’t represent their state’s values (though they’re likelier to say so in New Hampshire than in Iowa).

Non-Trump voters tend to be actively considering more candidates on average — half of them are currently considering three or more, underscoring that fragmentation. DeSantis is being considered by the most non-Trump voters in Iowa, while Haley leads in consideration by that group in New Hampshire, followed closely by DeSantis.

Back to those independents in New Hampshire: Even though they are less supportive of Trump, he’s still winning them easily, due in part to Haley, Christie and DeSantis splitting the bulk of the non-Trump voters among themselves. This is the same dynamic we saw in the 2016 primary, when Trump carried independents with only around a third of their votes. Where his challengers end up this year may depend on the eventual turnout of independents — they constituted a sizable segment of the 2012 and 2016 primary electorate — as well as whether they start to coalesce around an alternative.

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Abortion and the campaign

Abortion not only plays an important role in GOP primaries, but also marks a large difference between these two states.

In New Hampshire, unlike in Iowa, half of Republican primary voters think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Most Iowa Republican primary voters think a woman should be criminally punished for having an abortion. Most New Hampshire voters disagree.

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Trump leads no matter how these voters feel about abortion. 

But the second tier looks a little different in New Hampshire, where relatively more voters would have abortion be legal. Trump still leads, but by a significantly smaller margin, with Christie and Haley edging out DeSantis for second and third place. 

For the four in 10 Trump voters who think abortion should be legal in New Hampshire, few are considering Christie, and about half say they at least might consider Haley — particularly the women among them.

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The second debate

There is interest in the second presidential debate, with most Republican voters planning to watch, and most saying the presidential debates are a major factor for them in evaluating the candidates. Trump is not planning to attend Wednesday’s debate, but many of his supporters say debates are a major factor, perhaps because most of his voters are at least considering other candidates at this point.

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The race for delegates — what ultimately matters

Candidates’ current standing in our polling would translate to Trump picking up about half the delegates in Iowa and the majority of New Hampshire’s relatively small delegate haul. Specifically, he would bring in about 20 of Iowa’s 40 delegates and 17 of New Hampshire’s 22.

These are not forecasts, but instead a translation of voters’ current preferences to delegate breakdowns. While the first two states account for just a small portion of the roughly 1,200 delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination, the delegate tally is the score that ultimately matters. And emerging from early contests with a small number of delegates versus none at all can help candidates decide whether to stay in the race or drop out.

We produce estimates via statistical simulation, in which we use the variation in our survey data to simulate the state’s vote one thousand times, enumerating lots of possible outcomes. Each simulation incorporates the rules of the nominating contest in that state, such as delegate rounding and thresholds. (We used a similar technique to estimate delegates during the 2020 Democratic primary campaign.)

The end result is delegate range for each candidate — again, indicating where the race stands today, not where it will end up next year. Trump’s current support translates to between 18 and 23 delegates in Iowa, where delegates are allocated proportionally based on the statewide vote. DeSantis is in a distant second with 6 to 10 delegates, and the rest of the field tends to pick up at most a few delegates each.

In New Hampshire, where candidates have to win at least 10% of votes statewide to qualify for any delegates, Trump dominates. Our simulations indicate his support translates to between 14 and 20 delegates, even though only half of the state’s primary voters name him their first choice. Since there isn’t a clear second-place candidate, four candidates are hovering around that 10% threshold: DeSantis, Haley, Christie, and Vivek Ramaswamy. In some simulations, they qualify for a few delegates. In many, they fall a little short and get nothing, helping pad the front-runner’s lead.


These CBS News/YouGov surveys were conducted between September 15-24, 2023. They are based on representative samples of 1,011 registered voters in Iowa and 943 in New Hampshire. The samples were weighted according to gender, age, race, education, and geographic region based on the U.S. Census Current Population Survey, as well as past vote. Results here are reported among likely Republican caucus/primary voters, and have a margin of error of ±6.1 points in Iowa (n=458) and ±5.4 points in New Hampshire (n=502).

Iowa:

New Hampshire:

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