CNN  — 

Republicans hold a dour outlook on the country and prioritize finding a 2024 nominee who shares their views on major issues over one with a strong chance to defeat President Joe Biden, according to a new CNN poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents conducted by SSRS. The survey suggests sharp divisions within the potential GOP electorate by age, education, ideology and geography, as well as between Donald Trump backers locked into their choice and a more movable group in search of an alternative.

Just 30% of all Republicans and Republican-leaners say the country’s best days are still ahead of it – a dramatic shift from 2019, when Trump held the White House and 77% were optimistic that the best was ahead, and lower even than the 43% who said the same in the summer of 2016, prior to Trump’s election.

Most Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (61%) say that the country’s increasing racial, ethnic and national diversity is enriching American culture, but a sizable and growing share see it as a threat. The 38% who consider those changes a threat now is about twice as high as four years ago, and similar to where the party stood in 2016. Meanwhile, a broad 78% majority of Republican-aligned Americans say that society’s values on sexual orientation and gender identity are changing for the worse. And 79% say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses, just a touch below the share who felt that way at the height of the Tea Party movement during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Looking ahead to the looming primary campaign, the survey finds that most Republicans and Republican-leaning independents would choose a candidate who agrees with their views on major issues (59%) over one who has a strong chance to beat Biden (41%). A broad majority see it as essential that the party’s nominee demonstrate the sharpness and stamina to serve effectively in office (87%), while smaller majorities say it is essential for the nominee to pledge to maintain Social Security and Medicare as they are (59%), represent the future of the party (57%), support government action to oppose “woke” values (54%) and attract support from outside the party (54%).

Asked to name the issue they consider most important in determining who they might support for the nomination, 32% in the potential GOP electorate mention the economy, 16% immigration, and 13% cite specific qualities they’d like to see in a candidate. Fewer name foreign policy (9%), government’s size or spending (7%), or issues related to values, morals and rights (7%).

When the potential electorate – broadly defined as those who say they might participate in the 2024 GOP nomination process – are asked to choose who they would most likely support from a list of nine potential candidates, two familiar names rise to the top: 40% say they would most likely back Trump and 36% Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. No other candidate reaches double digits, with former Vice President Mike Pence and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley at 6% each. Combining first and second choice candidates, 65% name DeSantis as their top or second choice, 59% Trump, 22% Pence, 15% Haley and 9% former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with the rest of the field at 5% or less.

Although primaries and caucuses remain far in the future, about 6 in 10 of those who say they might participate in the nominating process and have a first-choice candidate say they will definitely support that choice. Trump’s backers are most solidly locked in (76% say they’ll definitely support him) and are the most enthusiastic about participating in the primaries (51% are extremely or very enthusiastic). A smaller majority of DeSantis’ supporters say they will definitely support him (59%).

The roughly one-quarter of the party who supports a candidate besides Trump or DeSantis is much more open to change. About 7 in 10 in that group say they could change their minds about whom to support (71% say so).

All told, though, 7 in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they would like the candidates to pledge their support to the eventual nominee regardless of who it is, while only 30% say they should not make that pledge.

Here’s a look at some of the key demographic, political and socioeconomic dividing lines within the party.

Educational and economic divisions

Republicans and Republican-leaners who’ve graduated college are 6 percentage points likelier than those without degrees to say that the government is trying to do too many things (83% to 77%, respectively), 9 points likelier to say America’s best days are ahead (36% to 27%), and 12 points likelier to say that America’s increasing diversity is enriching the country’s culture (69% to 57%).

Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who haven’t graduated from college are more likely than the party as a whole to say it’s essential the GOP presidential nominee pledges to maintain Social Security and Medicare (67% feel this way), as are those making under $100,000 annually (64%).

Republicans and Republican-leaning independents with college degrees and household incomes above $100,000 particularly stand out as a bloc. They’re significantly more likely than those in any other combination of educational and income categories to think that America’s best days lie ahead (41%), to find increased racial diversity enriching (74%), and to say they believe Trump has had a bad effect on the GOP (45%). They’re also the least likely to say it’s essential that the Republican nominee pledges to maintain Social Security and Medicare (40%), and just 20% call Trump their current first-choice candidate.

Echoing a pattern seen in other early polls, those with college degrees are about twice as likely to pick DeSantis as their first choice for the nomination as they are to pick Trump, 41% to 23%, with another 12% picking Haley. Among those without college degrees, 48% currently back Trump, 34% support DeSantis, and just 3% pick Haley as their top choice.

The political divides: Ideology and independents

Those within the GOP who hold the most conservative views – describing themselves as “very conservative” – are most likely to have a negative impression of the ways in which America is changing today. Nearly 8 in 10 (77%) say America’s best days are in the past, compared with about two-thirds of those who are less conservative, moderate or liberal. They also express the least support for government action to solve the country’s problems, with a near-universal 88% saying the government is doing too many things better left to individuals and businesses.

That deeply conservative segment of the Republican Party also appears most engaged in the 2024 nomination contest at this early stage. A little over 6 in 10 very conservative Republicans and Republican-leaners (61%) say they are extremely or very enthusiastic about participating in the primary or caucus where they live, compared with 37% of those who call themselves somewhat conservative, and just 22% of those who are moderate or liberal.

The most conservative members of the potential Republican electorate also have a different set of issue and candidate criteria than those with less conservative ideological leans. Asked to name the most important issue in choosing a GOP presidential nominee, about as many who call themselves very conservative chose immigration (23%) as an economic issue (22%). Values or rights related issues came out on top for 13% in this group, compared with 5% or less among those who are somewhat conservative, moderate or liberal.

Republicans and Republican-leaners who call themselves very conservative are also near universal in their belief that Biden was not legitimately elected president in 2020, with 84% saying his election was not legitimate, including 56% who say that there is solid evidence of that. There is no evidence that the results of the 2020 election were compromised or that widespread fraud occurred that could have affected the outcome.

Independents who lean toward the party align with Republicans more broadly on whether government is overstepping and trying to do too many things better left to individuals and businesses (81% independents, 78% GOP). But, like those with less sharply conservative ideological views, independents who lean toward the party are less engaged in the GOP’s nomination process: 18% say they don’t plan to participate in the nominating process – about triple the share of Republican-identifiers who say the same – and just 21% are extremely or very enthusiastic about participating, which is about half the share of Republicans who feel that way (42%).

Independents are more apt than partisans, though, to say they’d like to see a candidate who shares their views on the issues than one who can defeat Biden (65% vs. 57%), and they are more likely to say it is essential that the Republican nominee can attract support from outside the party (62% to 52% among partisans).

While Republicans generally say that Trump has had a good effect on the party (62% say so, while 25% say he’s had a bad effect), independents who lean Republican are more closely divided, with 47% saying the former president has had a positive effect and 38% a bad one; the rest say he hasn’t made much difference (15%).

Demographic and geographic dividing lines

Within the Republican Party, geography and demography both play a role in outlook on the nation. Republicans and Republican-leaners who live in rural areas are most likely to say the nation’s best days are behind it (78%, compared with 69% in the suburbs and 63% in urban areas), and residents of the Northeast (44% best days ahead) are most likely to see the best days in the future.

There’s a stark division by age in impressions of how the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the country is impacting American culture, with 72% of Republicans and Republican-leaners under age 30 seeing increased diversity as an enrichment compared with 47% of those age 65 or older. There is also a sharp split by race: While 41% of White Republicans and Republican-leaning independents see these changes as a threat, 26% of Republicans of color agree.

On 2024, suburban Republicans and Republican-leaners express the least enthusiasm about a potential Trump nomination: 55% of rural residents would be enthusiastic if the former president won the nomination as would 45% of urban residents, but just 38% of suburbanites say the same.

Older Republicans and Republican-leaners are most likely to say they prioritize nominating a candidate with a strong chance of beating Biden (52% who are 65 or older say so), while 6 in 10 or more in younger groups prioritize a candidate who shares their positions on major issues. Younger Republicans and Republican-leaners are less likely to consider it an essential priority for the nominee to support government action to oppose “woke” values in American society: Just 40% of those younger than 30 call that position essential compared with 63% of those 65 or older.

And pledging to maintain Social Security and Medicare as they are is a sky-high priority for older Republicans, with 81% of those age 65 or older saying it’s essential for the nominee to commit to that. But among those younger than 45, just 45% feel the same way.

This CNN poll was conducted by SSRS from March 8-12 among a random national sample of 1,045 self-identified Republicans and Republican-leaning independents drawn from a probability-based panel. Surveys were either conducted online or by telephone with a live interviewer. Results among the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.8 points, it is larger for subgroups.