Vivek Ramaswamy Is Climbing. Where Can He Go?

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Vivek Ramaswamy Is Climbing. Where Can He Go?

At last week’s Republican debate, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy arguably made the biggest splash of any candidate. Sharing center stage with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the entrepreneur spoke more than any contender other than former Vice President Mike Pence and even briefly surpassed the absent front-runner, former President Donald Trump, in Google search traffic.

Built partly on his personal wealth and media savvy, Ramaswamy’s longshot candidacy has crystallized into something that is, if not quite at the level of constituting a serious challenge, at least competitive enough to draw more attention. On debate day, he stood at about 10 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average, up from 4 percent in early July. Similar to less heralded candidates who came before him, Ramaswamy is now facing more scrutiny from fellow Republicans and the media. His primary opponents criticized his positions and inexperience during the debate, while his comments about some issues — such as the possible involvement of the federal government in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — have prompted journalists to more closely examine Ramaswamy. So as Ramaswamy stands on the precipice of becoming a big-time candidate, we took a look at who is backing him, what his potential ceiling might be and which other GOP candidate(s) he could take support from in the coming weeks and months.

Who supports Ramaswamy?

Republican primary polls conducted in August didn’t consistently find that Ramaswamy’s support came disproportionately from certain groups. And even in polls that did find divides, the differences weren’t usually statistically significant, as margins of error for subgroups — like voters with a four-year college degree — will be larger than the margin of error for the entire sample. Because of sampling error and differences in how pollsters conduct their surveys, such inconsistencies aren’t unusual, but they do complicate any takeaways about the nature of his support.

That said, there’s limited evidence that Ramaswamy tends to perform somewhat better among more educated voters. A HarrisX/American Free Enterprise Chamber of Commerce poll conducted just before the debate found Ramaswamy at 10 percent support nationally, but 12 percent among likely voters who had at least a four-year college degree and 8 percent among those without one. Another HarrisX poll conducted right after the debate for The Messenger (this time of registered voters) also found a similar gap. And while mid-August surveys from Echelon Insights/Republican Main Street Partnership and JMC Analytics found Ramaswamy at different overall levels of support — 15 percent and 5 percent, respectively — each also showed him doing slightly better with college-educated voters. 

Polls are mixed, but suggest Ramaswamy is slightly stronger with college-educated voters

Vivek Ramaswamy’s overall support, support among voters with at least a four-year college degree and support among voters with less than a four-year degree, based on August 2023 surveys of registered or likely voters

Poll Dates Pop. Overall Bachelor’s degree or more Less than bachelor’s degree
Emerson College Aug. 25-26 LV 9% 8% 9%
HarrisX/The Messenger Aug. 24-26 RV 8 11 6
HarrisX/Am. Free Chamber Aug. 17-21 LV 10 12 8
Emerson College Aug. 16-17 LV 10 10 9
Echelon Insights/GOP Main St. Aug. 15-17 LV 15 17 14
JMC Analytics Aug. 14-17 LV 5 8 3
American Pulse Aug. 15-16 LV 7 8 7

Some other polls also found a similar pattern, but only looked at education among white voters, which makes sense as most GOP primary voters will be white. Both Quinnipiac University and YouGov/CBS News found Ramaswamy garnering more support from white voters with a four-year degree than those without one. Still, a Beacon Research/Shaw & Co./Fox News survey found Ramaswamy attracting 11 percent from both groups.

Secondly, he may be performing better among younger voters. Given Ramaswamy’s youth, it stands to reason that the 38-year-old might do best among voters closer to his age. And at first blush, some surveys show this. For instance, two polls from InsiderAdvantage from just before and after the debate found Ramaswamy polling close to 20 percent among voters under 40. However, both surveys had very small sample sizes for that group (under 100), which speaks to the reality that there will likely not be that many young primary voters. This is partly due to lower turnout rates among younger voters — even more so in low-turnout events like primaries and caucuses — but also their disproportionate Democratic lean, which could keep many from participating in the GOP primary. 

When you step back and compare Ramaswamy’s performance across age groups, he tends to attract the least support from voters who are 65 or older. Emerson College’s two August surveys found Ramaswamy polling best among the 18-to-34 and 35-to-49 age groups, but at just 2 to 3 percent with the 65-plus crowd. The Fox News survey found Ramaswamy attracting 11 percent each among voters under 45 and 45 or older, but only 4 percent among those 65 or older. While an American Pulse survey found Ramaswamy attracting little support among the few young voters in its sample, he had 13 percent among those 55 to 64, notably more than his 5 percent among those 65 or older. Yet as with education, not every poll shows this trend. For instance, other polls found little difference by age (Echelon Insights) or even a reverse relationship, with him doing better among older voters (both HarrisX surveys).

Despite being closely aligned with Trump, it seems Ramaswamy doesn’t disproportionately draw most of his support from more conservative voters. In polls from American Pulse, YouGov/CBS News and HarrisX, Ramaswamy tended to perform similarly among conservative and moderate voters (there were few liberals). In surveys that broke out conservative voters into two camps — usually “very” versus “somewhat” — Ramaswamy found more backing among somewhat conservatives in Echelon’s polling, but Fox News and Quinnipiac didn’t find much difference. All in all, a disproportionate share of the most conservative voters are committed to Trump, so they haven’t necessarily been available to Ramaswamy and other candidates. There was not enough evidence to indicate any disproportionate strength among men versus women, or white voters versus voters of color.

A high ceiling

One potential bright spot for Ramaswamy is his strong favorability ratings among Republicans. In August surveys — mostly conducted before the debate — 45 percent of Republicans viewed Ramaswamy favorably, on average, while only 14 percent viewed him unfavorably. His net favorability rating of +31 ranked third in the field, placing him only behind Trump and DeSantis, who are also far more well-known by comparison. Already popular among Republicans familiar with him, Ramaswamy has the opportunity to win over GOP voters who haven’t heard of him — or hadn’t before the debate.

Republicans familiar with Ramaswamy mostly like him

Each major Republican presidential candidate’s average favorable, unfavorable and net favorability ratings among Republicans in polls conducted since Aug. 1, 2023

Candidate Favorable Unfavorable Net Favorability
Donald Trump 72% 24% +48
Ron DeSantis 60 25 +35
Vivek Ramaswamy 45 14 +31
Tim Scott 42 14 +27
Nikki Haley 42 22 +21
Will Hurd 9 12 -3
Doug Burgum 10 14 -4
Mike Pence 41 47 -7
Asa Hutchinson 14 23 -9
Chris Christie 21 53 -32

Post-debate polling suggests that although the event raised Ramaswamy’s profile and favorability, it increased his unfavorable ratings even more. In a FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos survey of likely primary voters who watched all or part of the debate, the share with a favorable opinion of Ramaswamy increased from 50 percent to 60 percent. Yet the share who held an unfavorable view of him nearly tripled, from 13 percent to 32 percent, causing his net favorability to actually shrink from about +37 to +29. Morning Consult’s broader tracking data of potential primary voters also found a -9 point drop in Ramaswamy’s net favorability, although he maintained a strong +34 net favorability.

So while there was a downtick in his net favorables, Ramaswamy remains well-liked, which has likely helped him gain in another way: More Republicans now view him as their second-choice candidate. In a party primary, voters are mostly choosing among candidates with whom they agree on most issues, so they can shift preferences without necessarily sacrificing anything they value. As a result, being someone’s second-choice can position a candidate to potentially capitalize on the twists and turns of the primary. And Ramaswamy’s second-choice numbers have been on an upswing, especially among Trump supporters, which is a big deal considering Trump has the backing of about half the primary electorate. In early June, 8 percent of Trump voters named Ramaswamy as their second choice in Morning Consult’s polling; this week, that figure had jumped to 26 percent, moving him well ahead of Pence. In the same period, DeSantis’s second-choice position fell from 43 percent to 32 percent.

As you’d expect, a lot of those Trump voters naming Ramaswamy are conservative, too. That pre-debate HarrisX survey found 54 percent of conservative primary voters supported Trump, but when it came to their second choice, 24 percent of conservatives picked DeSantis and 22 percent Ramaswamy. Around the same time, YouGov/CBS News also found that 60 percent of conservative likely primary voters said they were considering or might consider Ramaswamy, third behind only Trump and DeSantis. And the debate does seem to have led more voters to consider Ramaswamy: The FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos survey found that, among debate watchers, the share considering Ramaswamy rose slightly, from about 41 percent to 46 percent.

Now, consideration is not the same as support, and like other candidates in the field, Ramaswamy could have trouble pulling in a large enough chunk of committed Trump voters to become more competitive. Take a mid-August survey by Selzer & Co. of likely Iowa caucus-goers on behalf of the Des Moines Register, NBC News and Mediacom: In the lead-off state, where voters are most engaged, two-thirds of Trump supporters said their minds were already made up and only one-third said they could be persuaded to support a different candidate. That contrasted to the overall sample, among whom 40 percent said that their minds were made up and just over half said they could still be persuaded.

But he’s still a longshot

Although he may have room to grow his support, there’s little question Ramaswamy is still a relative longshot to win the GOP nomination. G. Elliott Morris recently analyzed historical polling and the current Republican field, and he found that Trump had around a 4-in-5 shot of winning the nomination while Ramaswamy had a bit less than a 1-in-10 chance. That’s certainly not nothing, but it does speak to the difficulty of having an unusually strong front-runner like Trump in the race. As Morris found, Trump was only the fifth candidate since 1972 to poll at 50 percent or higher at the end of August of the year before the primary.

Additionally, Ramaswamy has had to contend with being a relative unknown at the start of the campaign. And while he’s markedly improved his position in the past couple of months, total unknowns have a difficult time winning nowadays. Because the “invisible primary” before voting is quite visible today, it’s very hard to go from a total unknown to party nominee. In fact, in our historical analysis of primaries before the 2020 Democratic contest, no candidate polling in the low-single digits in the first half of the year before the primary who had roughly 40 percent name recognition or less — Ramaswamy’s situation — has won either party’s nomination in the 21st century. 

To be sure, some of those contenders did make a mark, including some outsider candidates. For instance, businessman Herman Cain briefly led the 2012 Republican primary polls in November 2011, only for scrutiny of his behavior toward women and sexual harassment claims to prompt his departure from the race. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina used strong debate performances to attract attention in the crowded 2016 GOP race, and while she didn’t win many votes, she raised her profile enough to become Sen. Ted Cruz’s vice presidential pick late in that contest. And in the 2020 Democratic race, Pete Buttigieg, then the little-known mayor of South Bend, Indiana, quickly shot up in the polls in April 2019 despite not being that well-known; he went on to seriously contend in Iowa and New Hampshire before ending up in President Biden’s Cabinet.

Even if Ramaswamy has room to grow in this race, he will still need a lot to go right to actually win the GOP nomination. However, Ramaswamy is very young, so we could see him again even if 2024 doesn’t work out. Not to mention, his support for Trump has even led the former president to include him on a list of potential VP candidates, should Trump win the GOP nomination. In that sense, plenty has gone right for him already.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight. @geoffreyvs

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