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The Post-Debate Losers (Walker) and Winners (Fiorina)

You’ve already heard a lot of different takes about who won and who lost the first Republican presidential debates last week. We’ve deliberately waited to name names; winning the media spin after a debate is often more important than “winning” the debate itself. But now it’s been several days, and we have some post-debate polls to look at (seven as of this writing, to be exact).1 And there are a few clear winners and losers.

One quick word before we get to that, though: We’ve warned you not to take polls at this stage of the race too literally, especially when they involve Donald Trump. But if you’re going to look at polls, it’s at least better to look at a set of them rather than to cherry-pick one or two surveys. Some candidates who have been touted as post-debate winners (John Kasich) and losers (Rand Paul) haven’t seen their numbers move much, in fact. But a few others have.

Fiorina 7 8 2 7 8 4 6 6.0
Rubio 0 4 0 2 5 6 0 2.4
Carson -2 4 2 5 3 2 3 2.4
Cruz 6 -5 -3 3 0 1 7 1.3
Paul 0 2 0 -1 1 2 -1 0.4
Graham 0 2 1 -1 0 -1 0 0.1
Kasich 3 -2 1 0 -1 0 -1 0.0
Christie -5 2 1 0 2 1 -2 -0.1
Pataki 0 0 -1 0 -1 0 0 -0.3
Santorum -1 1 -1 0 -1 -1 -1 -0.6
Perry 0 -1 -2 0 -1 -2 0 -0.9
Huckabee 1 -1 -1 0 -4 -4 1 -1.1
Jindal -1 1 -2 -2 -1 -3 0 -1.1
Bush 2 -8 -1 1 0 -5 -3 -2.0
Trump -7 -4 7 -1 -9 -3 1 -2.3
Walker -6 -2 -2 -7 -5 -7 -3 -4.6


Carly Fiorina: She gained ground in every poll taken after the debate. In five of the seven polls, the gain was 6 percentage points or more. This shouldn’t be surprising given the initial reaction to her performance in Thursday’s earlier debate. Over 80 percent of Iowa Republicans, according to a Suffolk University poll, said she was the most impressive of the undercard debaters. We can’t be sure that she’ll be in the top tier for the next debate (on Sept. 16), but she has a good chance. And 93 percent of Iowa Republicans said she should be.

Marco Rubio: The case for Rubio is slightly harder to make, but he didn’t lose ground in any poll. No other candidate — besides Fiorina — can claim that. In Suffolk’s aforementioned Iowa poll, Rubio was the plurality choice as the most impressive candidate in the varsity debate. His net favorability ratings remain sky high, which means that he’ll continue to have a real chance of winning the nomination.

Ben Carson: Carson has little chance of being the Republican nominee, but he continues to poll fairly well and is well-liked by voters. Depending on which poll you look at, he was rated as either the most impressive or the second most impressive candidate in the varsity debate.

Ted Cruz: The debate helped Cruz, according to a few polls. But a couple of others showed him losing ground (marginally). In both the Suffolk Iowa poll and a YouGov national poll, Cruz came in third when voters were asked about which candidates impressed them the most or who they thought better of after the debate. Like Carson, Cruz is unlikely to win the nomination, but he’s just about as unlikely to disappear from your TV any time soon.


Scott Walker: This one surprised me a little, but the polling is clear. Walker is the only candidate who lost ground in every single post-debate poll. In Iowa, where Walker had been leading, just 5 percent of voters said his performance was the most impressive of all the candidates. Walker’s debate night was bad enough that he has lost his edge in Iowa to Trump.

Donald Trump: The polling is a bit split on Trump, but there is enough evidence to say — at the very least — that he didn’t gain any ground. On average, Trump lost about 2 percentage points off his standing, and that includes a Morning Consult poll that found him gaining 7 percentage points — a result no other poll came close to. Averaging polls that were conducted primarily by phone (i.e., Franklin Pierce, Public Policy Polling, Rasmussen Reports and Suffolk) shows Trump down 5 percentage points after the debate. Perhaps more dangerous for Trump, his net favorability rating in YouGov’s national poll dropped 14 percentage points, and 56 percent of Iowa Republicans said they feel less comfortable with him being president, according to Suffolk.

Jeb Bush: Bush’s numbers didn’t fall much, but he lost ground in four polls (while gaining in two). Just 2 percent of Iowa voters in the Suffolk survey thought he was the most impressive, and just 13 percent of voters nationally (according to YouGov) had an improved opinion of him after the debate. That’s actually worse than Trump, who was viewed more positively by 22 percent of Republicans post-debate.

Steady as she goes

Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum lost or gained about a percentage point or less after the debate.
But staying still isn’t a good thing for these candidates. Either Christie or Kasich could be in danger of falling out of the top tier in the next debate, hosted by CNN, if the Fiorina surge continues.


  1. I’ve compared each poll to a prior one by the same pollster in the last month, or failing that, to the Real Clear Politics average.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.