Presidential candidate Donald Trump gazes up during a boxing match at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 17, 2015 in New York City.  
Photo by Al Bello/Getty

Poll: Trump hits highest mark yet, but Carson is close behind


Real estate mogul Donald Trump remains the front-runner in the Republican presidential field, while former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is still close behind in second place, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows.

With the backing of 25% of Republican primary voters, Trump is at his highest level of support in the poll since entering the 2016 race. Carson now gets the support of 22% of Republican voters, remaining within the margin of error of his first place rival. Last month, 21% of GOP primary voters said Trump was their first choice for the party’s nomination, while 20% picked Carson.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is in third place, getting support from 13% of GOP voters, while Ted Cruz (at 9%, up 4 points since last month) and Jeb Bush (at 8%, up 1 point since last month) are in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

RELATED: Trump, Bush continue battle over 9/11 comments and George W.

The new poll, which surveyed respondents between October 15 and October 18, saw a slight dip in support for former HP executive Carly Fiorina, who fell from 11% last month to 7% this month. Fiorina won a boost late this summer from strong performances in the two televised Republican debates.

Receiving support in the low single digits in the poll are former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (3%), Ohio Gov. John Kasich (3%), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (2%) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (1%).

Five candidates still in the race – South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore – registered less than 1% support.

Carson’s upside potential

While Trump leads when GOP primary voters are asked about their first choice for the party’s nomination, Carson boasts the highest share of voters who say they can see themselves supporting him. Seventy-four percent said that they can imagine backing Carson for the GOP nod, while just 20% said they could not.

But Trump has also gained ground when it comes to whether or not potential voters can picture themselves backing him. Fifty-nine percent of GOP voters now say they can see themselves supporting Trump, while 36% disagree. Just last month, a slight majority – 52% – said they could not see themselves backing the real estate mogul, while 47% could envision it.

Rubio (65% could support/26% could not support) and Fiorina (56% could support/ 30% could not support) also show significant possible upsides among GOP voters.

The gap is narrower for Bush (51% could support/44% could not support) and Cruz (48% could support/41% could not support).

When asked which candidate would be their second choice, GOP respondents tended to choose Carson, followed by Trump and Rubio. That tally means that, when GOP primary voters’ first and second choices are combined, the former neurosurgeon manages to best Trump, 44% to Trump’s 39%.

Carson runs strongest among very conservative Republicans, with 28% of that group’s support, while Trump leads among those who say they are moderate or liberal (31%). Trump also leads among GOP primary voters who listen to talk radio (33% to Carson’s 22%) and those who describe themselves as Tea Party supporters (28 percent to Carson’s 22%).

The NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll was conducted October 15 to 18. The margin of error for 400 Republican primary voters is +/- 4.9%.