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Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

Breaking Down the Exit Polls: New Hampshire and South Carolina GOP Primaries

Daniel Kuhn, SPA/MPP ’16

You can make early predictions from the information voters provide in exit polls.

You can make early predictions from the information voters provide in exit polls.

We’re just a few days from “Super Tuesday,” a day when more states hold primaries than any other, and I’m pretty geeked. This is a big deal. Some candidates are looking to add more states and more delegates to their totals in order to lock up the nomination in a few weeks time. Others are nervously waiting for an opportunity to get back on track. Tuesday night will answer many questions; but one rises above the others: How clear is the path to nomination for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

For now, we can only look at exit polls to anticipate the outcome.

Trends based on exit polling data can project ahead to Super Tuesday and beyond to paint a picture of candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. These characteristics include demographic information like age, gender, level of education, and the size of the town voters live in, as well as other factors like ideology and how candidates fared among late-deciding voters. While critical in the Democratic primary, race is a complete nonfactor in the Republican primary in New Hampshire and South Carolina because of overwhelmingly white populations.

There are some trends that jump out while poring over exit poll data from these two states. It’s incredible that half of all voters said they’d make up their mind in the final week, demonstrating the opportunity candidates have to make up ground late. Moderate voters are an important voting bloc, but they appear to be shifting their support among the different candidates depending on the state. Few trends, though, have been as consistent as the education level of voters. Candidates like Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz have strikingly similar trends, performing steadily worse among more educated voters. Meanwhile, Senator Marco Rubio and Governor John Kasich continue to perform steadily better among more educated voters.

The demographic breakdown tells the same story, which, the Republican establishment has also expressed concern about: Trump is going to continue to steamroll the field because different segments of the electorate are still too fragmented to put up a real fight. At the same time, Cruz and Trump continue to court many of the same voters, performing very well among conservative, less educated, less wealthy voters. Establishment voters, who are typically in sync, were divided four ways in New Hampshire, leading Governor Chris Christie’s exit. In South Carolina these voters were split three ways, leading to Jeb Bush’s exit.

It’s important to remember that in addition to the delegates that are won in each primary, there are unpledged delegates (similar to the Democrats’ version of superdelegates). These supporters from each state can vote however they’d like at the nominating convention, and should add a cushion to an establishment candidate. This support base, and if Kasich leaves the race shortly after Super Tuesday, could be Rubio’s only chance to lead the delegate count going into the convention. However, it would far from guarantee enough delegates to clinch before then.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of exit polls for those who haven't had enough:

  • Impact of Late-Deciding Voters: In New Hampshire, Kasich rode late deciders to a second place finish, and in South Carolina voters deciding in the last week preferred Rubio and Cruz by large margins. This deficit impacted Trump’s ceiling, in spite of his dominant performance in the delegate count.
  • Rubio Coalition Needs Moderates: In New Hampshire, moderates delivered Kasich a second place finish while Rubio finished fifth. In South Carolina, moderates anchored Rubio’s second-place finish while Kasich finished fifth, whose support is nonexistent among conservatives. With Rubio splitting moderates with Kasich, he’ll be unable to build any coalition strong enough to unseat Trump.
  • Rubio Makes Up Ground with Younger Voters: A key to Rubio’s second place finish in South Carolina was voters age 18-29. He finished third in both states with the youngest voters, but was only 4 points behind Trump in South Carolina after a massive 24 point spread in New Hampshire.
  • Trump Underperforms Among Women, Where Rubio Could Make Up Ground: There is an emerging gender gap for Trump who continues to struggle appealing to women voters. His gender gap was 5 points in New Hampshire and 7 points in South Carolina. No comparable gap exists among any other Republican candidate left in the race, but Rubio did perform slightly better among women than men in both states.
  • Rubio Makes Gains in Cities: Rural voters put Kasich in second place in New Hampshire, but in South Carolina he tied for last-place with rural voters. In South Carolina, Trump led everywhere except cities, where Rubio bested him by 8 points. Urban voters could be a limiting factor for Trump, where Rubio demonstrates his potential as a candidate.

Snapchat Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

Daniel Kuhn, SPA/MPP ’16, takes to Snapchat as he reports live from New Hampshire

Snapchat on Storify

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