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Exclusive Townhall Media Poll: Carson Surges to National Lead Over Trump, Rubio Wins Debate

Following last week's Republican debate on CNBC, Townhall Media Group commissioned its third scientific poll of the 2016 presidential cycle. The poll was conducted by Survey Monkey, with whom
NBC News has also partnered over recent months. A look at the highlights:

(1) Ben Carson holds a slim lead among respondents planning to vote in Republican primaries or caucuses, besting Donald Trump by just over one percentage point, well within the margin of error.  Still, Carson's standing has improved substantially over his September performance in this series, when he trailed Trump by eight points.  One-fifth of GOP-leaning voters remain undecided:

Also of note is Marco Rubio's surge into third place, netting more than four percentage points since last month.  He's the only other Republican in double digits, though Ted Cruz is within shouting distance.  The previous third place finisher, Carly Fiorina, has receded into the middle of the pack.  Overall, fully half of respondents in the Republican-inclined subsample say it's at least somewhat likely that they'll change their minds before settling on a candidate.

(2) Among those who watched the CNBC debate (roughly 30 percent of the sample), Marco Rubio was seen as the winner by one-fourth of respondents, followed by Carson (18 percent) and Trump (17 percent).  Nine percent picked Ted Cruz, followed by John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina -- all tied at approximately seven percent.

(3) On the Democratic side, Joe Biden's decision to forego a 2016 presidential bid has helped solidify Hillary Clinton's clear position as her party's frontrunner.  Last month, she narrowly trailed Sanders nationally, with Joe Biden pulling in about ten percent of Democratic-leaning voters.  With Biden out and a commanding debate showing under her belt, Hillary is back in the driver's seat:

She's up by 16 points, gaining strength as the alternatives -- viable and otherwise -- to her candidacy fall by the wayside. Just ten percent of Democratic primary voters are undecided.

(4) The overall polling sample is a lopsided D+19, and 57 percent of respondents were women.  This deep blue slant may explain why a plurality of voters polled (39 percent) say Hillary Clinton testified "fully and honestly" in the recent Benghazi hearings, with almost as many saying she did not (36 percent).  Independents split (32/41) in the opposite direction, with Republicans heavily concluding that she wasn't honest.  Despite the large Democratic sample advantage, respondents give an emphatic thumbs-down to Hillary Clinton's claim that the nationwide VA scandal wasn't "widespread."  Just 16 percent of these voters agree with her statement.

(5) Newly-ensconced House Speaker Paul Ryan assumes the gavel to mixed reviews. Thirty percent of respondents view Ryan favorably, with an equal number unfavorably disposed.  All other respondents are ambivalent or undecided.  A separate question underscores why rivals on both sides of the aisle are pillorying Marco Rubio's (relatively mild) Senate absenteeism.  Fifty-six percent say missed votes in Congress matter "somewhat" or "a great deal" in determining their presidential choices.  Indeed, just after Colorado Senator Cory Gardner endorsed Rubio yesterday, the oppo hits started to fly:

The next Republican debate is scheduled for November 10th on Fox Business Network. Democrats' next sanctioned debate is November 14th on CBS.

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