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A Very Early Preview of the Republican Presidential Primaries

public domain image of 2016 Republican debate

The Spring 2023 Poll, conducted between March 18-27th 2023, is a survey of the South Dakota electorate by The South Dakota Polling Project – a non-partisan research group housed in the School of American and Global Studies at South Dakota State University. In this poll, 747 registered voters answered questions about political figures and policy questions of concern to South Dakota citizens. The margin of error of this survey was +/- 3.6 percent, similar to most statewide polls.

The Overall Field of Possible 2024 Candidates. Right now, we are in the period known as “the invisible primary” of the 2024 presidential election cycle. Each political party is now weighing and vetting potential candidates for their respective nomination. There is often some “fuzziness” associated with the potential field since many candidates choose to remain undeclared until a few months ahead of the primaries and caucuses. However, any serious candidate for 2024 will have been laying the groundwork for a run since at least the 2022 midterm elections, if not earlier.

At the time of the poll, there were two prominent declared candidates for the Republican nomination, former President Donald Trump and former governor of South Carolina and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. In addition to Trump and Haley, we also polled South Dakota Republicans on three other potential candidates: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and South Dakota’s own Kristi Noem. All three are doing everything they need to if they’re seriously weighing a White House bid, though their motives are a bit unclear right now.

To get a sense of where the electorate stands with them, we ran “feelings thermometers” for each figure. These are ratings ranging from 0 to 100 that give a good intuitive sense if respondents have warm, cold, or neutral feelings towards an individual. Note, that we did not ask people who they would vote for in the 2024 nomination. It is far too early to do so with any accuracy. Rather, we want to get a sense of registered voters’ general feelings towards each of these folks.

Governor Noem has a clear home-field advantage with a score of 72. Not surprising since she is the most popular political figure amongst the state’s Republicans. However, she has also been the most enigmatic on her intentions of the potential candidates for 2024. Should she run, she would face the challenge of building name recognition and a following in other states. She would also get little help from a victory in the South Dakota primary, since our state has chosen to put itself dead last on the calendar, effectively removing itself from shaping the presidential nominations in any way.

Ron DeSantis polled second with a thermometer rating of 66, no doubt due to his prominence in the last few months as he’s ramped up his public profile ahead of his highly expected run. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz polled at 57 each, followed closely by Nikki Haley at 54. These last three are within the poll’s margin of error and are statistically tied. Significantly, none of the candidates has a negative rating, suggesting all are acceptable to the state's Republican voters.

bar chart showing feelings thermometers of five possible Republican nominees. Noem is most popular in the state, followed by DeSantis, Cruz, Haley and Trump.

The Gender Gap. To get a sense of what might be driving the differences in support, we have broken down the thermometer ratings by gender. Gender often lurks behind many of the differences we see in many political matters – particularly candidate preferences. There are indeed some differences in opinions between men and women in the Republican party at play. The largest gender gap is on Governor Noem. The governor does better amongst Republican women than she does Republican men with scores of 76 and 70, respectively. This is the largest gap we see amongst any of these potential candidates.

Donald Trump also does better amongst women than he does men, with scores of 59 and 55, respectively. The difference between genders in support of Nikki Haley falls just under the margin of error (56 and 53), so any difference there is likely to be illusory. We can safely say that there is no difference between the genders in support of either Ron DeSantis or Ted Cruz.

bar chart showing the gender gap on the feelings thermometers for the five possible candidates. Noem, Trump, and Haley do better amongst women. DeSantis and Cruz have no difference between men and women

Evangelicals. Since 1980, the influence of Evangelical Christians has been slowly and steadily growing within the Republican party. Prior to 1980, Evangelicals were evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and were largely non-mobilized politically. However, in the intervening decades, they have risen to become of nearly singular importance within Republican party politics. As a consequence of this transformation, most Republican hopefuls on the national stage must put winning Evangelical support as a top priority of their campaigns and work hard towards winning that faction of the party.

So far, each of these potential candidates is showing higher appeal to Evangelical Republicans than they are to non-Evangelicals. The gap is significant for each potential candidate, the lowest gap between Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals is with Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, both of whom have solid reputations in that corner of the party.

What this says overall is that Evangelical influence in the Republican party is as high as it has ever been. While self-identified Evangelicals are not a numerical majority within the state or even the Republican electorate (they comprise about 33% of and self-identified Republicans in our random sample), they are by far the most active and organized constituency in the party.

For years, there was a palpable tension in the Republican party between rival factions: Evangelicals, motivated largely on social issues on the one hand, and so-called “country club Republicans” animated primarily by economic issues on the other. These results are part of a large body of evidence that Evangelicals are now dominant in the party, and that candidates must appeal to that group should they wish to succeed in the nomination contest.

Bar chart showing that each of the five candidates is more popular amongst Evangelical Republicans than non-Evangelical Republicans

Contributors: David Wiltse PhD and Filip Viskupič PhD