Clinton, Carson top votes in new Iowa State University/WHO-HD poll, with weeks to go before the Iowa Caucuses

AMES, Iowa – If the Iowa Caucuses were held this month, 27.2 percent of Republicans likely to attend would support Ben Carson, and 49.5 percent of Democrats likely to attend would favor Hillary Clinton. That’s according to a new Iowa State University/WHO-HD caucus poll out today.

Respondents who said they would probably attend the Democratic caucuses were asked, “If you had to decide today, which of the candidates seeking the nomination for president would be your first choice?” After Clinton, Bernie Sanders came in a distant second (27.8 percent), “don’t know” third (13.7 percent) and “other” fourth (6.3 percent).

Among likely Republican caucus-goers asked the same question, Carson received the largest share of support, followed by Marco Rubio (16.7 percent), “don’t know” third (16.2 percent) and Donald Trump fourth (14.7 percent).

‘Who would be your second choice for the nomination?’

Sanders was the second choice of 32.5 percent of those likely to attend the Democratic caucuses, compared to 28.5 percent for Clinton and 8.3 percent for Martin O’Malley.

Among respondents likely to attend the Republican caucuses, Carson was the leading second choice (19.2 percent), followed by Rubio (13.1 percent), Ted Cruz (11.4 percent) and Trump (10.8 percent).

ISU political scientists weigh in

“The contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination delegates in Iowa seems to have settled down to being in Hillary Clinton’s favor, barring some major personal or policy issue arising between now and Feb. 1,” said Mack Shelley, University Professor and chair of political science and professor of statistics. “Another consideration for the Democratic caucuses is that it’s not clear at this time whether there could be a surge of support from younger, and particularly first-time, potential caucus attenders, who are likely to support Bernie Sanders. If the Sanders campaign can galvanize young voters and have a strong organization on the ground to get their supporters to the caucuses, the results may look different on Feb. 1.”

Political Science Professor James McCormick concurred.

“Hillary Clinton, with nearly 50 percent support, appears to have a tight grip on the Iowa Caucuses. Bernie Sanders may have reached his ceiling of support in Iowa at just under 30 percent, unless he can persuade an influx of young voters, and those who have not attended a caucus previously, to turn out on Feb. 1. Interestingly, Martin O’Malley’s support is largely invisible, even after the most recent Democratic debate held in Des Moines,” McCormick said.

On the Republican side, Shelley said there is still an ebb and flow of support among the large field of GOP contenders.

“That can make a huge difference in that fragmented electorate, where a candidate could ‘win’ the caucuses with only about 20 to 30 percent of the vote,” he added.

Not only is the Republican race fluid, McCormick noted, but the contest in Iowa could solidify quickly if some second-tier Republican candidates drop out of the race.

“As resources dry up for some of these candidates, this remains a distinct possibility over the next several weeks,” he said. “Second, political novices – and Washington outsiders – continue to dominate the Republican field here in Iowa (as in the nation). Carson and Trump certainly fit that category, and Rubio likely wants to portray himself that way, too. Increasingly, Republicans seem to be opting for this kind of a nominee.”

Iowans are paying close attention to the campaign

Eighty-one percent of respondents said they were following the presidential campaign either “very closely” (39 percent) or “somewhat closely” (42 percent). Slightly more than half of the respondents said they had “definitely decided” on (21.3 percent) or were “leaning toward” (30.3 percent) a particular candidate. But nearly 47 percent said they were still trying to decide.

Honesty wins

Survey respondents chose “honest and trustworthy” (38 percent) as the leading trait they seek when deciding to support a presidential candidate, followed by “takes strong stands” (20.8 percent), “cares about people” (17 percent) and “has the right experience” (16 percent). The least frequently selected reason for choosing a candidate, other than “don’t know” (3.7 percent) was whether or not the candidate “can win the election” at 10.7 percent.

Issues in the presidential nomination campaign

Respondents were asked to select “the most important problem facing this country today” from a list of topics. The most frequent response was the “economy in general,” cited by 239 respondents (22.2 percent). Respondents with higher levels of education were more likely to cite the economy as the most important problem. Men (27.1 percent) were more likely than women (17.8 percent) to identify the economy as the most pressing issue. Those planning to attend the Republican caucuses were more likely to select the economy as the most important problem than were those planning to attend the Democratic caucuses (25.1 percent vs. 19.9 percent, respectively).  

In addition, respondents with annual incomes under $25,000 were least likely to cite the economy as the most important problem (15.5 percent). Respondents earning more than $100,000 were most likely to identify the economy as the most important problem (28.1 percent).

'What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?'




Economy in general






Health care, health insurance



Gap between rich and poor



Judicial system, courts, laws






Environment, pollution



Foreign policy, foreign aid, focus overseas



Dissatisfaction with government, Congress



Race relations, racism



Immigration, illegal aliens



Unemployment, jobs



Morality, ethics, religious issues, family decline, dishonesty



Federal budget deficit, federal debt



Poverty, hunger, homelessness



Crime, violence









Not Applicable






More than half of all respondents (58.2 percent overall) supported increasing the minimum wage. Support among likely Democratic caucus participants was much stronger (87.1 percent) than among likely Republican caucus participants (32.8 percent).

Among other questions, respondents also were asked whether Iowa should provide incentives to new businesses that provide higher-paying jobs. Overwhelmingly, 79.7 percent of respondents supported government incentives. Likely Democratic caucus attendees (82.5 percent) were more inclined to respond “yes” to this statement than were likely Republican caucus attendees (76.8 percent).

About the Iowa Caucus Poll

The new ISU/WHO-HD poll was compiled through phone interviews with 1,074 registered voters Nov. 2-15. The margin of error is approximately 3 percent. Respondents included 496 Democrats, 518 Republicans and 61 Independents. More women (52.9 percent) than men (47.1 percent) participated in the phone interviews, which averaged 12 minutes. By age, 627 respondents (58.4 percent) were more than 50 years old; 295 (27.5 percent) were ages 30-50, and 152 (14.2 percent) were under 30.

This is the first of two waves of polling Iowa State’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology is conducting with WHO-HD, the NBC affiliate in Des Moines. The second wave will be conducted approximately Jan. 2-15, 2016, with as many respondents from the first wave as possible. That will provide an understanding of stability and change in respondents’ preferences and attitudes over time.

Faculty in the Department of Political Science, the Department of Statistics, and the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication are collaborating on the Iowa Caucus Poll. Those departments, plus ISU’s Office of the Vice President for Research, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, as well as WHO-HD, are funding the research.