The mystery of Vivek Ramaswamy’s rapid rise in the polls

The mystery of Vivek Ramaswamy’s rapid rise in the polls

Two new polls of Republican primary voters released on Thursday showed former President Donald Trump in first place by a wide margin. But what was startling was who came in second.

The first shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in his usual spot far behind Trump. The other shows 38-year-old first-time political candidate Vivek Ramaswamy edging out DeSantis for second place.

Ramaswamy’s early rise represents the most significant movement in the still-nascent race for the GOP presidential nomination. Or does it?

There’s no question that Ramaswamy has come out of nowhere to become a surprisingly interesting candidate to the GOP electorate. But there are some methodological curiosities that raise questions about just where Ramaswamy fits within the tiers of Republican hopefuls below the dominant frontrunner.

Ascertaining Ramaswamy’s true standing isn’t just an academic exercise. The Republican National Committee says it will use polling to determine podium order at its first sanctioned debate later this month, so Ramaswamy will likely be at or near the center of the stage if Trump chooses not to participate.

Overall, polling averages put him in third place. In RealClearPolitics’ average, Ramaswamy is at 6.1 percent, behind only Trump (54.2 percent) and DeSantis (15.1 percent), but ahead of Mike Pence (5.2 percent), Nikki Haley (3.4 percent), Tim Scott (2.8 percent) and Chris Christie (2.6 percent). FiveThirtyEight’s polling average shows Ramaswamy even higher, at 7.5 percent, 2 points clear of Pence for third.

Ramaswamy’s strength comes almost entirely from polls conducted over the internet, according to a POLITICO analysis. In internet surveys over the past month — the vast majority of which are conducted among panels of people who sign up ahead of time to complete polls, often for financial incentives — Ramaswamy earns an average of 7.8 percent, a clear third behind Trump and DeSantis.

In polls conducted mostly or partially over the telephone, in which people are contacted randomly, not only does Ramaswamy lag his average score — he’s way back in seventh place, at just 2.6 percent.

There’s no singular, obvious explanation for the disparity, but there are some leading theories for it, namely the demographic characteristics and internet literacy of Ramaswamy’s supporters, along with the complications of an overly white audience trying to pronounce the name of a son of immigrants from India over the phone.

The two polls released on Thursday stand as examples of the discrepancy. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll had Ramaswamy at 3 percent, tied with Haley for fifth place and behind both Christie and Pence.

Meanwhile, a web-panel poll from the Republican firm Cygnal had him at 11 percent, 1 point ahead of DeSantis. (Cygnal is also working for Ramaswamy’s campaign, though this poll was commissioned independently of that effort, and it isn’t the only one to show him cracking into the low double-digits.)

There’s no doubt Ramaswamy is rising. The only question is how much. While he’s at 6.1 percent in the RealClearPolitics average now, he was at 3.1 percent a month ago and 2.2 percent the month prior.

And unlike other candidates who have invested significant financial resources to gain traction — like Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum — Ramaswamy has done it almost entirely on the back of earned media. According to AdImpact, Ramaswamy, who is mostly self-funding his campaign, has spent $1.8 million on TV and digital advertising, far less than the other contenders, some of whom have already cracked $20 million on ads when combined with supportive super PACs.

Instead, the attention Ramaswamy has garnered comes from TV and digital media catering to the highest-intensity voters paying the closest attention to the race thus far, even though the first vote is still more than five months away. And high-information, high-interest voters — those who might be called the most “online” — are also likely to be over-represented in opt-in internet polls.

This could change when he’s on the debate stage later this month, but the information those voters are receiving about Ramaswamy is also almost uniformly positive so far. According to Morning Consult’s weekly tracking of the race, 36 percent of GOP primary voters reported hearing something positive about him in the past week, a greater percentage than for any other candidate, even though a slim majority, 52 percent, said they hadn’t heard anything about him at all.

Polls generally also show Ramaswamy is favored more by younger Republicans and voters with college degrees, also groups that are often more present in online polls than phone surveys.

Just because there are apparent methodological effects at play doesn’t mean one batch of polls is more likely to be closer to reality than the other. And it’s certainly possible that they’ll converge as the race goes along, particularly once larger numbers of voters get to know the candidates through televised debates and other more closely followed events.

On the other hand, there’s one reason why Ramaswamy’s support might actually be artificially lower on the phone than in point-and-click internet polls: his name.

Pollsters work hard to ensure that their interviewers pronounce the candidates’ name correctly. They provide pronunciation guides — like this one in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll: “Viv-AKE Rahm-uh-SWAM-ee” — and call centers monitor some of the interviews to make sure their employees are saying it right. (If you’ve ever heard that one of your phone calls was “being monitored for quality assurance,” this is how it works.)

And then, in order for a respondent to choose Ramaswamy in a phone poll, he or she will have to repeat the name back to the interviewer. And the national Republican electorate is definitely older and whiter than the country as a whole: In a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, more than 80 percent of likely GOP primary voters were white, and 38 percent were 65 or older.

“When your candidate is named Vivek Ramaswamy,” said one Republican pollster, granted anonymity to discuss the polling dynamics candidate, “that’s like DEFCON 1 for confusion and mispronunciation.”

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