Former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks takes a selfie with UNH student and campaign intern David Andritsakis during the opening of his campaign headquaters in Manchester, New Hampshire, June 27, 2023.
CNN  — 

Former President Donald Trump holds a sizable lead in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination in New Hampshire, but a close contest for second place has emerged among four candidates seeking to gain traction as an alternative to the front-runner, according to a new CNN/University of New Hampshire poll.

Overall, Trump is the first choice of 39% of likely GOP primary voters in the first-in-the-nation primary state. That lags a bit behind his performance nationally, where Republican primary polling routinely finds Trump with majority support.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who stood out as Trump’s chief rival in the last UNH survey on the New Hampshire race in July, has dropped 13 points since then to 10% support. He’s now running about even against three rising candidates: tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (13%), former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (12%) and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (11%). South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is at 6% support in the poll and former Vice President Mike Pence holds 2%. No other candidate tops 1%.

DeSantis’ decline stems from a sharp drop-off among moderates, from 26% backing him in July to 6% now. He fell a smaller 8 points among conservatives.

The gains made by the other candidates who are now more competitive with DeSantis seem to be playing out across some clear demographic and political contours.

Ramaswamy’s increase is concentrated more among those who are not registered Republicans (up 16 points since July with that group while holding relatively steady among registered Republicans) and among younger likely voters (he’s up 28 points among those younger than 35 and 11 points among those ages 35 to 49, while holding about even among those ages 50 or older). Christie’s growth is concentrated among those who identify as independents or Democrats but say they will vote in the GOP primary (from 23% support in July to 38% now, while among self-identified Republicans, he’s holding roughly steady at 3% support). And Haley’s increase is a bit larger among those with more formal education (up 11 points among those who’ve completed some postgraduate work and 15 points among other college graduates) and among moderates (she gained 18 points with the group, while her support among conservatives is roughly even with July).

The poll suggests a sizable share of voters are open to changing their minds between now and the primary, which is expected to be held in January but does not yet have an official date. The share of likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire who say they have definitely decided whom to support holds steady compared with the July UNH poll at 36%, with 38% saying they are leaning toward a candidate and 24% still trying to decide. Trump’s supporters are more likely to say they have made up their minds – 69% of Trump voters in the primary say they’ve definitely decided, compared with just 18% of those backing other candidates.

Christie sparks the strongest negativity among the field: Overall, 67% of likely Republican primary voters say they have an unfavorable view of him, and 60% say they would not vote for him under any circumstances. No one else in the GOP field has been crossed off the list by a majority of likely GOP primary voters. Forty-two percent say they would never vote for Pence, 31% said the same of former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, 30% of Trump, 24% of Ramaswamy, 22% of DeSantis, 19% of Haley and or 8% of Scott. Pence is the only candidate besides Christie with majority unfavorable views among likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire (62% unfavorable).

About half of likely Republican primary voters, 51%, say that Trump has the best chance to win the general election in 2024, with DeSantis the next highest at 16%. Trump’s dominance on this measure extends across most demographic and political divides. Even those less partial to supporting Trump overall – college graduates, those who aren’t registered as Republicans, moderates – tend to see him as having a better shot at winning the presidential election in 2024 than the rest of the field.

Few likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters raise serious doubts about Trump when asked to name their top concern about him as a candidate. Many focus on concerns about threats to Trump, including 17% who cite attacks by opponents or media, 8% who mention his indictments or risk of imprisonment, 6% who mention election fraud and 4% who express concern about potential violence against Trump. About 1 in 8 express concern about his ability to win, 6% are concerned that he’s divisive or unpopular, and some point to his personality or character (8% mention his bombastic nature, 4% dishonesty, 4% general character concerns).

The poll also suggests that alongside the key differences that appear to drive the GOP race in most polling – by education, party preference and ideology – in New Hampshire, there are broad differences between Trump backers and those supporting other candidates on what they’d like to see in a Republican candidate for president, the issues that are most important to them and on several policy proposals that have been prominent during the Republican primary campaign.

Those likely primary voters who are not backing Trump broadly say they prioritize the economy (48%) as the top issue in making their decision about whom to support, with far fewer pointing to immigration (14%). Trump supporters, though, are more evenly split between the economy (28%) and immigration (25%), followed by issues around personal freedom (10%) and the cost of living (9%).

The sharpest policy divide between Trump backers and those supporting other candidates comes over funding for Ukraine: 84% of Trump backers say they support stopping all military funding for Ukraine, while just 39% of those backing other candidates feel the same way. There’s a nearly 40-point gap between Trump supporters and others over support for a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 weeks (78% of Trump supporters back it vs. 40% of those behind other candidates), and a 32-point difference over abolishing the federal government’s Department of Education (81% among Trump backers, 49% among others). There are significantly smaller differences on requiring transgender athletes to compete on teams that match their assigned sex at birth rather than their gender identity (95% of Trump supporters and 83% of those behind other candidates support that), and there’s broad agreement on returning federal spending to its pre-Covid levels (86% of Trump supporters and 73% of those behind other candidates support that).

And those who are not currently backing Trump have different priorities for the traits they’d like to see in a presidential nominee. While roughly three-quarters of those who back candidates other than Trump say it is very important that the Republican nominee attract support from outside the party (75%), less than half of Trump supporters feel the same way (45%). Trump backers broadly want a candidate who will fight for conservative values even when they are unpopular (93%) and who is not a typical politician (64%), but far fewer backing others agree (50% and 26%, respectively). Those backing someone besides Trump are more than three times as likely as Trump supporters to say it’s important that the GOP nominee is respectful to others (73% vs. 23%) while the vast majority in both camps say they’re looking for a candidate who says what he or she believes.

The CNN New Hampshire poll was conducted online September 14- 18 by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Results among the full sample of 2,107 New Hampshire adults drawn from a probability-based panel have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points. Likely voters were identified through survey questions about their intention to vote. Results among 845 likely Republican primary voters have an error margin of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points; it is larger for subgroups.