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The deep dive: Where Republican candidates are drawing support

With such a crowded field, trying to distinguish which demographic groups are breaking for any single candidate is difficult.

In the crowded Republican race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump has emerged as the surprising front-runner. But the latest NBC News online survey conducted by SurveyMonkey finds that Trump appeals to certain Republican voters more than others. He doesn’t have a lock on evangelicals, older voters or those who identify as “very conservative,” among others – all important voting blocs he would need to assemble to make it through a tough primary season.

Among Republican primary voters, Trump leads the field with 22%, according to the most recent NBC News-SurveyMonkey poll which was conducted online from July 20 to 26 among 8,228 adult Americans nationwide. The next tier of candidates is congested: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker both receive 10% of support, and Ben Carson and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio earn 8% each. With a confidence interval of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points, there could be no real difference with those earning 10% and those pulling in 5% or 6% of Republican voters – which would place Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee into that same second tier.

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A deeper dive into the numbers sheds some light on where the candidates are drawing their biggest levels of support – and the large sample size, which included more than 3,000 Republican primary voters, allows for greater analysis. In the NBC News-SurveyMonkey poll, 10 Republican candidates had the support of at least 100 primary voters who identified as Republican or who lean Republican (Christie had 90, but we rounded up in order to have the 10 likely candidates included in the Republican debate on Thursday night).  

With such a crowded field, trying to distinguish which demographic groups are breaking for any single candidate is difficult. Because Trump has about a quarter of the Republican electorate supporting him, he tends to do best among most of the voting groups.

For example, Republican primary Catholic voters divide their support among Trump (19%), Bush (14%), Rubio (12%), and Walker (12%). More voters with high school degrees or less support Trump (26%) than do college graduates (17%), but he still receives the highest level of backing among college graduates. Looking at the demographics in this manner does not present a very well-defined portrait of the Republican electorate, as they tend to break the same way as the vote question does.

However, by looking at the demographics of each candidates’ supporters, a clearer picture emerges of who each candidate is appealing to within the Republican electorate.

For example, among Bush supporters, 53% are Protestant, 29% are Catholic and 33% identify as white evangelical or born-again Christians. Looking at the data this way provides an indicator as to each candidates' appeal within voting blocs in the Republican electorate.

Bush, Christie and Walker are drawing support from Catholic voters. Thirty percent of Christie’s supporters identify as Catholic, the highest among the GOP candidates, followed by Rubio at 29%. Huckabee, Cruz and Carson are getting strength from evangelical voters. Carson was thrust into the national spotlight in February 2013 when he criticized President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

Among Rand Paul supporters, a full quarter say they are atheistic, agnostic or not part of any particular religion, far higher than any of the other candidates. Paul also enjoys support from young voters -- more than a third of his supporters are under the age of 30. Paul has taken steps to appeal to a diverse range of voters, including visiting the historically black Howard University and Ferguson, Missouri, the site of weeks of racially charged protests after a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager.

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Christie and Carson enjoy the highest support from women. Among Christie’s supporters, 65% are women. Among Carson’s supporters, 61% are women. Walker and Paul are the strongest among men. Seventy-four percent of Walker’s supporters are men, while 71% of Paul’s are.

About a third of Kasich, Bush, Rubio and Christie supporters have college degrees or more; just 1 in 5 Trump and Paul supporters do. Trump, Carson and Paul all have at least 4 in 10 supporters who have high school degrees or less. Walker never received a college degree; 31% of his supporters are college graduates. Thirty-seven percent of Walker’s supporters have a high school degree or less, while 32% of his supporters have completed some college.

Cruz, Carson and Walker draw about a quarter of their support from voters who identify as very conservative. Christie, Bush, Kasich and Paul draw the lowest support from this group. Paul gets the highest number of moderates – 46% of his supporters identify as moderate, followed by Bush at 41% and Kasich at 38%. Christie has pitched himself as a blue-state governor who has reached across the aisle to work with a Democratic legislature. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, some conservatives criticized Christie for his embrace of Obama as the two leaders toured the storm-ravaged New Jersey coast. Kasich is the governor of the pivotal swing state of Ohio, where he agreed to accept federal funding under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid. And Bush has largely stayed above the fray as Trump has gone after a number of his Republican rivals, capturing endless headlines along the way. Among Trump’s supporters, just 18% identify as “very conservative.”

Nearly a quarter of Rubio supporters are Hispanic; Cruz also derives 21% of his support from Hispanic voters. Only Bush and Paul have double-digit support from Hispanics among the other candidates. Cruz speaks often about his father’s journey from Cuba to the U.S. Rubio, who championed immigration reform in the Senate before backing away from the legislation, is also the son of Cuban immigrants.

Looking at the ideology of voters, three issues stand out as showing some divisions among the candidates.

On economic inequality, supporters of five candidates were divided as to whether everyone has a fair chance to get ahead in today’s economy or if it’s mainly just a few people at the top getting ahead – echoing the populist themes running through a number of these campaigns. Those supporting Bush, Christie, Huckabee, Paul and Trump were more closely split on the issue (their voters are split by a range of 6-11 points on the two answers) than those supporting Carson, Cruz, Kasich, Rubio and Walker (21-58 points). Walker had the highest percentage of supporters who said that everyone has a fair chance to get ahead (78%), while Christie had the highest percentage of voters who said just a few at the top can get ahead (52%).

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On immigration, 30% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters overall agree with the statement that immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents, and 66% say that immigrants are a burden because they take our jobs, housing and health care. Among Trump supporters, 83% see immigrants in a more negative light, followed by Cruz (74%) and Carson (70%). Bush, Christie, Rubio and Paul each have about 4 in 10 supporters who see immigrants as a positive for the country. Trump has famously declared that he will win the Latino vote, but only 5% of his supporters are Hispanic.

On climate change, 38% of Republican voters say human activities have led to global warming; 60% say increases in the Earth’s temperature over the last century is due to natural causes. But among the candidates, supporters’ views vary. A majority of Christie supporters (57%) say global warming is due to humans – the highest among any candidate. Paul and Bush supporters are roughly split over the issue. Cruz, Walker and Kasich each have more than 7 in 10 supporters who say the earth’s warming is due to natural causes.

The NBC News Online Survey was conducted online by SurveyMonkey from July 20-26, 2015 among a national sample of 8,228 adults aged 18 and over. Respondents for this non-probability survey were selected from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day.  Results have an error estimate of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points for the entire sample and 2.7 percentage points for Republican primary voters. A full description of our methodology can be found here. The survey was produced by the Analytics Unit of NBC News in conjunction with Penn's Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies with data collection and tabulation conducted by SurveyMonkey. Analysis by the University of Pennsylvania's Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies.