Former President Donald Trump, who continues to hold a wide lead over the rest of the Republican presidential field, at a rally earlier this summer in Erie, Pa.JEFF SWENSEN/GETTY IMAGES
Trump Is Top Choice for Nearly 60% of GOP Voters, WSJ Poll Shows
Support for DeSantis collapses in postdebate survey
Aaron Zitner and
Updated Sept. 2, 2023 12:04 am ET
Donald Trump has expanded his dominating lead for the Republican presidential nomination, a new Wall Street Journal poll shows, as GOP primary voters overwhelmingly see his four criminal prosecutions as lacking merit and about half say the indictments fuel their support for him.
The new survey finds that what was once a two-man race for the nomination has collapsed into a lopsided contest in which Trump, for now, has no formidable challenger. The former president is the top choice of 59% of GOP primary voters, up 11 percentage points since April, when the Journal tested a slightly different field of potential and declared candidates.
Trump’s lead over his top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has nearly doubled since April to 46 percentage points. At 13% support, DeSantis is barely ahead of the rest of the field, none of whom has broken out of single-digit support.
The poll highlights one of the remarkable features of the 2024 primary race: Criminal prosecutions that in past eras might have sunk a candidate have only strengthened the leading contender. Two of Trump’s indictments involve his efforts to remain in power after his 2020 loss, which included repeated false claims of widespread election irregularities.
Asked about the indictments of Trump, more than 60% of Republican primary voters said each was politically motivated and without merit. Some 78% said Trump’s actions after the 2020 election were legitimate efforts to ensure an accurate vote, while 16% said Trump had illegally tried to block Congress from certifying an election he had lost. About half, or 48%, said the indictments made them more likely to vote for Trump in 2024, while 16% said they made them less likely to support him for a second term.
WSJ POLL, AUGUST 2023
The survey also found Trump running about dead-even with President Biden among voters overall in a hypothetical rematch of the 2020 election, with low interest among voters for two third-party candidates. Trump had 40% support to 39% for Biden, with potential Green Party and Libertarian candidates drawing a combined 3%. A significant share—some 17%—were undecided.
In a head-to-head test that excluded other candidates, Trump and Biden were tied, with 46% each and 8% undecided.
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Michael Bocian, said it was shocking that a potential general election rematch between the last president and the current one is polling this closely, given Trump’s indictments.
“When we talk about how twisted and bent reality has become, that’s a really good example of it, because if, in fact, this were any other time and place, this race would not be happening this way,” said Fabrizio, who also works for a super PAC supporting Trump’s candidacy.
The survey revealed other findings about the Republican primary race:
- • At 13% support, DeSantis’s position has collapsed since April, when 24% backed him in a slightly different field of candidates tested by the Journal.
- • GOP primary voters believe businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, far more than any other candidates, exceeded expectations in the televised Aug. 23 GOP debate among eight of Trump’s rivals. But those impressions so far haven’t turned into significant ballot support, with Haley the first choice of 8% and Ramaswamy at 5%.
- • Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who has cast himself as an affable warrior for conservative causes, has made little headway after three months of campaigning, drawing 2% support.
- • Republicans nationally are rejecting the candidates who most sharply criticize Trump: Former Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas drew 3% and 1% support, respectively. Christie is the most unpopular GOP candidate tested, with 73% holding an unfavorable view of him.
- • The image of former Vice President Mike Pence, who turned aside Trump’s request to block Congress from certifying the 2020 vote, has tarnished among primary voters. In April, 54% viewed him favorably. Now, 30% view him favorably, and 63% have an unfavorable view. He’s the choice of 2% for the party nomination.
“DeSantis collapsed,” said Bocian. “The one candidate who back in April really seemed to be a potential contender, seemed to have a narrative to tell, has totally collapsed, and those votes went to Trump.”
The Florida governor endured millions of dollars in attack ads—largely unanswered—from Trump’s team even before he made his relatively late entry into the race in May. He recently laid off staff and changed campaign managers. His attempt to run to Trump’s right turned off some supporters and donors without peeling off many Trump backers.
DeSantis has the resources for the long haul, including a super PAC with $85 million. His aides say voters won’t really begin focusing on their choices until the weather starts turning cold in places such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first nominating contests will be held.
There is some truth to that. At this point in 2015, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the winner of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, was at just 8% in the most closely watched poll in the state. Trump was at 23%.
Former President Donald Trump is facing four separate indictments at both state and federal levels. WSJ breaks down each of the indictments and what they mean for his 2024 presidential campaign.
Despite the emphasis that DeSantis, Trump and some other candidates in the primary race have placed on trying to counter so-called woke policies pushed by liberals, Republican voters don’t tend to identify those issues as most important in their electoral decisions, the survey showed. They are much more likely to mention issues like the economy and immigration.
The WSJ survey included 600 GOP voters who said they would participate in a presidential primary or caucus and was conducted after the GOP debate, from Aug. 24-30. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points. A broader sample of 1,500 American voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, was asked about matters other than the GOP primary race.
While the Journal poll tested impressions of Republican primary voters nationally, the nominating process is a state-by-state contest that unfolds over months, starting with Iowa’s Jan. 15 caucuses. Trump is leading in surveys both in Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, but some state polls show a smaller lead than in the Journal’s national survey.
A number of factors could alter the race, including an unexpectedly strong showing by a candidate in one of the early-voting states. Tens of millions of dollars in television advertising will soon be spent, which could reshape views of the candidates.
The survey finds that GOP primary voters nationally have favorable impressions of most of the field. Some 70% viewed DeSantis favorably, for example—a decline from 84% in April, but a larger share than for any candidate except Trump.
Similarly, more than half of GOP voters hold favorable views of Haley and Ramaswamy, and almost two-thirds see Scott in a positive light. Moreover, some voters say they don’t know enough about the candidates to venture an opinion—about one-quarter say so of Scott—raising the prospect that support could grow as the candidates become better known.
But another finding suggests that dramatic changes are unlikely: Some 76% of Trump supporters say that they are committed to him and won’t change their minds. By contrast, 25% of DeSantis voters say their minds are made up. Smaller shares of Ramaswamy, Haley and Christie voters say they are fully committed to their choice.
New York prosecutors charged Trump in early April with allegedly falsifying business records to hide hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. He was later indicted by federal officials for allegedly taking classified documents after his presidency and obstructing government efforts to get them back. Federal prosecutors and one in Georgia have also charged Trump in separate cases for actions they say amounted to illegal efforts to reverse his loss in the 2020 election.
Poll participant Rick Sarver, a 65-year-old former electronic technician who lives in Spring, Texas, said he sees no reason to consider GOP candidates beyond Trump.
“They don’t know how to run the country like Trump knows how to run the country,” he said. “The country was a whole lot better under Donald Trump.”
Sarver said he has no concerns that Trump wouldn’t be able to win a general election, if he becomes the Republican nominee. “Our country is starting to turn into a banana republic, when the Department of Justice is indicting Trump on all these B.S. charges,” he said.
Jerry Helmberger, a 69-year-old retired bed-and-breakfast operator and lifelong Republican who lives in Houlton, Wis., said he is leaning toward supporting DeSantis in the primary. He thinks the nation needs a change from Trump.
“I’m afraid that he might be a little bit too divisive, and we have to get some peace in our country,” Helmberger said, adding that he thinks DeSantis has been an effective, conservative governor.
Lori Grajek, a 63-year-old substitute elementary-school teacher from Dearborn, Mich., said she thought Ramaswamy performed well in the debate and has a future in the party.
“I think that he really has the pulse, especially on the younger generation, and he seems really smart,” said Grajek, who is leaning toward Trump but also considering DeSantis in the primary. “He definitely seems to be a rising star in the Republican Party.”
The Wall Street Journal survey was conducted by cellphone, landline phone and by texting some respondents and allowing them to take the survey online.