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The Bulk of the GOP Electorate Doesn’t See the Third Debate as 'Very Important'

40% of GOP primary voters say the GOP presidential debates are “very important,” similar to the share who said the same before September’s debate, which had meager ratings
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Natalie White
November 07, 2023 at 10:51 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • 2 in 5 potential Republican primary voters said the party’s presidential primary debates are “very important,” similar to the share who said the same in advance of the second televised contest in September but down from 49% ahead of the first debate in August.

  • Roughly 1 in 4 potential primary voters (26%) said they expect Vivek Ramaswamy to perform best at the Miami debate, down from 32% in surveys conducted before the first and second debates. While expectations are highest for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — 34% of respondents expect him to perform the best — the share who said they expect former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to be the best debater has increased from 4% ahead of the first debate to 17% now.

  • Donald Trump’s absence from the debate stage has done nothing to weaken the former president’s hold on the Republican Party.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faces the highest expectations ahead of the third Republican presidential debate, with roughly a third of potential GOP primary voters expecting him to put in the best performance. But with former President Donald Trump’s continued absence from the stage, our new survey suggests the latest debate could have a meager impact on his dominance given that the bulk of the GOP’s expected 2024 electorate doesn’t see the showdowns as being very valuable.

Only 2 in 5 GOP Primary Voters Say the Debates Are ‘Very Important’

Shares of potential Republican primary voters who, in advance of the first, second and third Republican presidential primary debates, said the debates are “very important”
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Surveys conducted Aug. 10-13, Sept. 21-24 and Nov. 1-2, 2023, among more than 800 potential Republican primary voters each, with unweighted margins of error of +/-2 percentage points.

According to our Nov. 1-2 survey, 2 in 5 potential Republican primary voters said the party’s third presidential primary debate is “very important,” similar to the share who said the same in advance of the second televised contest in September and down from 49% ahead of the first debate in August.

The weakened interest last time translated in a notable drop in debate viewership, giving Trump’s challengers for the party’s 2024 nomination little chance to damage his dominant lead. In fact, the second debate was followed by Trump’s best numbers ever at that point in the Republican primary.

This is daily data: We survey thousands of U.S. voters every day, producing exclusive daily tracking among thousands of Republican primary voters ahead of Election Day.

Understand true impact in real time: Other, more traditional polls with smaller sample sizes may look noisy or show jumps in support. Our dedication to high-frequency survey research means larger sample sizes of voters and demographics, with more consistency and more stability. Daily data matters.

Our latest tracking of the contest shows Trump backed by 63% of the electorate, up from 58% before the first matchup. DeSantis, his closest challenger, has 15% backing, followed by former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at 8% and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at 7%.  

While the earlier debates had little impact on Trump’s level of support, the data suggest that they have weakened Ramaswamy, whose support has declined from 10% before the first showdown, while Haley’s backing has risen a bit. Ahead of the third debate, our survey shows voter expectations for Ramaswamy’s performance on stage have dropped since we first asked the question in August. 

Fewer Voters Think Ramaswamy Will Perform Best in the Third Debate

Share of potential Republican primary voters who expected the following candidates to perform best in advance of the first, second and third Republican presidential primary debates:
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The latest survey included the four candidates who appeared to have qualified for the debate before the Republican National Committee's announcement on Nov. 6.
Surveys conducted Aug. 10-13, Sept. 21-24 and Nov. 1-2, 2023, among more than 800 potential Republican primary voters each, with unweighted margins of error of +/-2 percentage points.

Roughly 1 in 4 potential primary voters (26%) said they expect Ramaswamy to perform best at the Miami debate, down from 32% in surveys conducted before the first and second debates. While expectations are highest for DeSantis — 34% of respondents expect him to perform the best — the share who said they expect Haley to be the best debater has increased from 4% ahead of the first debate to 17% now.

The bottom line

These debates could be used to help winnow the field to consolidate support behind a sole Trump challenger. But they have not done that to date, leaving a large group of contenders fighting for support from roughly 40% of the party’s electorate that isn’t already supporting Trump.

If Trump opponents in the Republican Party want to have even a chance of defeating the GOP front-runner, they’ll need to consolidate around a candidate sooner rather than later. But without Trump on stage, the debates so far have proven to be an unproductive side exercise — with no candidate able to press Trump or force him into a gaffe — allowing the former president to march into the final phase of the pre-voting campaign with seemingly unshakable support among the party’s electorate.

A headshot photograph of Eli Yokley
Eli Yokley
U.S. Politics Analyst

Eli Yokley is Morning Consult’s U.S. politics analyst. Eli joined Morning Consult in 2016 from Roll Call, where he reported on House and Senate campaigns after five years of covering state-level politics in the Show Me State while studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia, including contributions to The New York Times, Politico and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter @eyokley. Interested in connecting with Eli to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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