Preferential Polling

Allowing respondents to rank their choices, rather than choose only their top one or two candidates, provides us invaluable insights into our Republican base.

Especially early in a primary, many voters are still making a decision about which candidate to support. Voters start grouping candidates into those they like and those they will not support. Seeing how voters would rank each candidate reveals patterns and can provide a glimpse into how the race will develop over time. 

Understanding which candidates voters like the least shows which messages are resonating and which are falling flat. 

Preferential polling also allows us to simulate where voters move if and when their preferred candidates drop out of the race. 

More and more data scientists and organizations are using preferential polling to get a fuller picture of how voters are deciding which candidates to support.

New ranked choice poll examines the Republican presidential field after second debate

WPA Intelligence fielded a national poll of 801 likely Republican presidential primary voters on September 28-30, following the second Republican presidential debate. The poll also included an oversample of 400 respondents from “early states” voting before Super Tuesday. Below is FairVote’s analysis of the latest preferential poll (and you can see analysis of an earlier poll here).

The memo below outlines toplines and key findings, including

  • Nationally, Donald Trump remains the clear front-runner (with and without ranked choice voting). Trump leads with 48% of voters’ first choices, similar to the 49% he received in late August. In a ranked choice voting tabulation, Trump beats Nikki Haley, 62%-38%.
  • In the early state sample, Trump leads with 43% of voters’ first choices. But in an RCV tabulation, Ron DeSantis earns a majority faster than Trump and comes out on top, 51-49% (within the poll’s margin of error). 
  • In both the national and early state samples, Trump is both the most popular first-choice candidate and the most popular last-choice candidate (13th out of 13). In the national poll, 24% of respondents rank Trump 13th; this is up from 17% in August. In the early state sample, 28% of respondents rank Trump 13th. 
  • In the early state sample, four candidates are real rivals to Trump, but polling shows that DeSantis is the only candidate who beats Trump head-to-head. Along with DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Chris Christie are all within the margin of error during the round-by-round count, suggesting any of them could make it to the final round in an RCV contest. In other words, the field could consolidate around any of these contenders. 
  • Nationally, Ramaswamy has gained support since the August poll. His share of first-choice support has nearly doubled, from 7% to 13%. 
  • Nationally, a large but decreasing share of Trump voters are completely committed to their choice; other voters are more flexible. Among Trump voters, 40% are completely committed (representing 19% of all poll respondents), down from 48% completely committed in August (representing 23% of all respondents).
  • Nationally, Republican voters support ranked choice voting. 62% of respondents would support using ranked choice voting in 2024 primary elections, compared to 24% who would not support it.

    Additional Analysis

    Nationally, Trump remains the clear front-runner (with and without ranked choice voting)

    Respondents were asked to rank the presidential candidates in order of preference.

    In the national poll, Donald Trump is the first choice of 48% of respondents, a solid lead over second-place finisher Ron DeSantis (13%).

    In our ranked choice voting tabulation, Trump picks up votes slowly in rounds 2-10 and wins a majority (50% + 1) in round 11 after most of his competitors are eliminated. When the tabulation is run down to the final two candidates, Trump beats Nikki Haley, 62%-38%. Although Haley has a modest share of first-choice support, she makes it to the final round because she is a popular backup choice, earning large increases in vote share when Tim Scott, Mike Pence, and Chris Christie are eliminated.

    In early states, Trump shows some vulnerability

    In the early state sample, Donald Trump is also a clear front-runner, with 43% of voters’ first choices. Ron DeSantis finishes second, with 16% of voters’ first choices.

    In our ranked choice voting tabulation, the results are much different. DeSantis consolidates non-Trump voters, and “comes from behind” to defeat Trump (though the final result is within the margin of error).

    DeSantis is clearly a more popular backup choice than Trump, particularly among Chris Christie voters after Christie is eliminated.

    When looking at results in each individual early state, Trump has the least first-choice support in New Hampshire, at 25%. Christie leads that poll with 39% of voters’ first choices. In all other early states, Trump earns at least 40%. (The margin of error for the entire early state sample is 4.9%. Individual states may have higher margins of error due to smaller sample sizes.)

    Second-choice preferences reveal patterns

    Examining voters’ backup choices helps us understand which candidate voters might prefer if their favorite drops out of the race. The data reveals at least two clear “camps” of voters: Trump-DeSantis-Ramaswamy voters and Christie-Haley voters.

    DeSantis is the most common second choice for voters who rank Trump first (39%), while Ramaswamy is the second most common (33%). Trump is the most common second choice for DeSantis voters (40%) and Ramaswamy voters (25%).

    Haley is the most common second choice for Christie voters (40%), while Christie is the most common second choice for Haley voters (34%).

    Consensus support for each candidate

    “Consensus support” measures how many voters rank a candidate as their favorite, how many rank them in their top 2, how many in their top 3, and so on. This shows hidden levels of support, who tends to be polarizing, and who may have more weakness than first-choice totals show.




    • Nationally, Trump is most likely to be ranked in the top three (62% of respondents, compared to 56% for DeSantis). 
    • Trump is also most likely to be ranked last – 24% of respondents ranked him 13th out of 13, and this number increases to 28% among the early state sample. This is a substantial increase over the 17% who ranked Trump last in the August poll.
    • The candidates most often ranked in respondents’ top three choices are Trump (62%), DeSantis (56%), Ramaswamy (49%), and Haley (39%). The same four candidates lead in the early state sample. 
    • The candidates ranked in a majority of voters’ top five choices are DeSantis, Ramaswamy, Haley, Trump, and Scott. Notably, more voters rank DeSantis in their top five than Trump. 
    • In early states, the patterns are largely similar. Haley and Scott perform better thanks to their strong support in their home state of South Carolina.

    Nationally, Trump voters are committed to their choice; other voters are more flexible

    Overall, 26% of respondents say they are very committed to their first choice, and 46% are mostly committed. 

    Among voters ranking Trump first, 40% are completely committed and 52% are mostly committed, making Trump the candidate with the voting base least likely to change its mind. 

    However, the share of “completely committed” Trump supporters dropped from 48% in August (representing 23% of all respondents) to 40% in this poll (representing 19% of all respondents).  In the early state sample, 43% of Trump supporters are completely committed (representing 19% of all early state respondents). While Trump has the largest base of completely committed supporters, this group represents less than a quarter of the total Republican primary electorate, and may be shrinking in size.

    The other candidates have a higher share of supporters who are uncertain. 

    The second Republican presidential debate had some impact on voter preferences

    Most respondents who watched all or some of the second presidential debate had similar preferences to those who did not watch any of the debate.

    However, Trump’s standing was significantly worse among voters who watched the debate (-11 percentage points), which he did not attend. This may represent that some of Trump’s strongest supporters chose not to watch the debate.

    Haley and Ramaswamy did noticeably better among voters who watched the debate than those who didn’t (+4 percentage points each). DeSantis also did better among debate-watchers (+2 percentage points).

    Republican voters support ranked choice voting

    After being asked to rank the candidates, respondents were asked for their opinions about ranked choice voting.

    In the national sample, 53% said they were familiar with ranked choice voting, compared to 45% who were not familiar. 62% of respondents would support using ranked choice voting in 2024 primary elections, compared to 24% who would not support it. 

    This is an increase in support from the poll fielded after the first Republican presidential debate. 


    The poll was conducted by WPA Intelligence. It included 801 likely Republican presidential primary voters, and an oversample of 400 likely Republican voters from seven “early states” voting before Super Tuesday: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Michigan, Missouri, and North Dakota.

    The margin of error is 3.5% nationally and 4.9% among the early state oversample.

    Appendix: Head-to-head matchups

    Ranked choice voting data allows us to simulate head-to-head matchups between each pair of candidates. This provides insights about which candidates might be particularly strong if other candidates withdraw from the race. 

    How to read this table: Read across rows. For example, the first row with data can be read as, “Trump is ranked higher than Haley by 62% of voters, Trump is ranked higher than Ramaswamy by 59% of voters, etc.”

    • Trump defeats every other candidate head-to-head. 
    • DeSantis performs well by this metric, beating every candidate except Trump.
    • Among early state voters, there is no candidate who beats every other candidate in a simulated head-to-head matchup. 
    • Trump beats DeSantis, DeSantis beats Ramaswamy, and Ramaswamy beats Trump. All three beat every candidate outside the top three. Note that all three matchups are within the margin of error, and could be considered toss-ups.