COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – In Ohio’s primaries for U.S. Senate, an independent poll commissioned by NBC4 finds a new leader in the crowded Republican race and a solidified frontrunner on the Democratic side.

Mike Gibbons has leapfrogged longtime frontrunner Josh Mandel for the GOP nomination, per a late February survey by Emerson College pollsters in partnership with NBC4 and The Hill.

It shows Gibbons, a Cleveland banker, with 22%, ahead of Mandel, a former state treasurer, with 15%. They’re followed by six other candidates with at most 8%. Nearly 4 in 10 voters, however, are still undecided.

As for Democrats, Youngstown area Congressman Tim Ryan is confirmed as the frontrunner in the first independent poll of that race. His 31% trumps three other candidates with at most 9%, although more than half of voters remain undecided two months from the May 3 election.

About this poll

Between Feb. 25 and 26, Emerson College Polling surveyed 723 likely voters – 313 for the Democratic primary and 410 for the Republican primary – using text-to-web, an online panel and automated phone calls.

Results were weighted by gender, age, education, race and region based on 2020 election turnout.

The Republican question has a 4.8-point margin of error, and the Democratic question has a 5.5-point margin of error. That means a candidate could theoretically lose or gain 9.6% or 11%, respectively, if the poll were done again.

“The margin of error is higher because you’re dealing with such a small subset and we’re looking a couple of months out from the election,” Emerson’s director of survey operations Isabel Holloway said. “As we get closer towards the election, we use a higher sample size, which allows our margin of error to become smaller.”

Ryan would survive the Democratic race’s error margin, while a high margin in the close Republican race makes the nomination more up for grabs.

Election implications

Gibbons is a new top candidate on Republican side. Two other independent polls of the race, both from the Trafalgar Group in December and February, had Mandel with an obvious lead.

The most recent Trafalgar poll, though, showed Gibbons and Matt Dolan gaining on Mandel. And a Co/Efficient poll in February gave Gibbons a slight edge on Mandel. Monday’s Emerson poll indicates the nomination is there for the taking.

“Our numbers in the Republican Senate race show that there’s no clear frontrunner at this point,” Holloway said, with Gibbons and Mandel on top and “a couple of other candidates that are still kind of in that conversation.”

“With a plurality of voters still undecided,” she said, “it’s clear that any of these candidates could make a move in the next two months.”

Mandel, the GOP nominee in 2012, has enjoyed good name recognition and has associated himself strongly with former President Donald Trump, but Gibbons’ blitz of TV ads since last year attacking other candidates and claiming he’s the most pro-Trump candidate could be helping him.

“That effect should diminish over time,” however, Ohio State University political science professor emeritus Paul Beck said. “Mandel has a lot of money and will throw a lot of money into this race.”

On the Democratic side, Beck described Ryan as the “hands-down favorite” with “fragmented” opponents.

Columbus lawyer Morgan Harper, who lost the Democratic primary Joyce Beaty in 2020 for Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District and has been seen as Ryan’s top opponent, finished last in Emerson’s poll. Joining her in the single digits are Columbus activist Traci Johnson and former Columbus social worker LaShondra Tinsley.

Ryan, meanwhile, already has the endorsement of current Democratic Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.

“He has to be heartened by the fragmentation of the opposition to him,” Beck said. “There’s nobody who’s rising up there who looks like they are going to be able to position themselves to knock him off.”

How reliable is Emerson College?

Emerson has a long track record as a reliable, impartial pollster. Poll tracking website FiveThirtyEight gives them an overall A-minus after analyzing 201 polls from 2013 through the 2020 election cycle.

The Emerson/NBC4 poll of Ohio’s 15th Congressional District race two weeks before last November’s election gave Republican Mike Carey an 11.1-point lead over Democrat Allison Russo with more than 1 in 10 voters still undecided.

Carey won by 16.6 points, a result within the poll’s 4.6-point error margin.