Polling News

Measuring Success in the First Presidential Debate

August 31, 2023

Debates don’t typically produce a clear winner, but do provide a venue where candidates can shine. Post-debate polling conducted by the Washington Post, Ipsos, and FiveThirtyEight revealed that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis emerged as the winner of the first Republican Presidential Debate last week, measured by the percentage of debate watchers who’d consider voting for each of the candidates.

Why It Matters: Candidates polling in the rear of the pack needed to shine on the debate stage last week to keep pushing forward. Some commentators were skeptical if the Florida governor would effectively communicate his own message to the electorate from the stage. This poll shows that a more of those who watched the debate were swayed to consider DeSantis, while the former president saw the number of Republicans who’d consider voting for him drop by 5 points from earlier surveys (61% now; 66% before).

By The Numbers:

  • Among those who viewed the debate, 67% are now considering voting for DeSantis, while 61% are considering voting for former President Trump, who didn’t attend the debate.
  • 46% of viewers are now considering both former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who had a few strong moments, and longshot Ohio businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. Haley saw the greatest improvement of all the candidates on the stage, rising 17 points on this measure (46% now; 29% before).
  • 29% of viewers believe DeSantis performed the best on stage, while 26% saw Ramaswamy as the top performer. The next closest candidate in polling was Haley at 15%, while 13% of those polled stated none of the candidates or didn’t know.


Viewership & Bracketing: According to the poll, roughly 33% of Republican primary voters watched the debate while only 7% of Republicans polled tuned in to the former president’s attempted counterprogramming with an exclusive Tucker Carlson interview. The poor viewership calls into question Trump’s decision not to attend the debate. The result was that he was overtaken in the ‘consider’ category by DeSantis. 

The Bottom Line: Time and subsequent polling will tell whether the decision not to participate was a smart move for Trump. Campaigns are seldom won on a debate stage, but they can be lost. After questions about his debate abilities before the event, DeSantis’ performance moved the needle for his effort. Haley and Ramaswamy also had moments, Haley possibly having the most durable appearance. Despite the mainstream media narrative, Republicans, especially those in the early states, are making it clear that the nominating process will not be a swift coronation for the former President; their votes must be earned. Showing up matters.

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