When polls ask voters to rank candidates instead of just choosing one, they gain a better understanding of each candidate's’ strength in this crowded field. Earlier in January, FairVote’s simulated New Hampshire primary using Public Policy Polling (PPP) data revealed Marco Rubio’s deeper well of support in that state, despite Donald Trump’s apparent lead in the polls. Nationally, our analysis of PPP data showed Trump and Ted Cruz locked in a dead heat in a simulated RCV primary. While Trump easily outpaced Cruz in the first choices, as candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were eliminated many voters migrated to Cruz, bringing him within a percentage point of Trump by the final round.
PPP’s latest set of data from Iowa shows significant strength for Cruz. FairVote used data from PPP’s three way contests to simulate a ranked choice contest for a state. Cruz dramatically narrows Trump’s lead in the first round, and in each subsequent round earns enough second-choice support to easily emerge as the victor.
While most plurality polls acknowledge Cruz’s growing popularity, they don’t consider the substantive support Cruz might gain from supporters of other candidates who might drop out or lose first choice support - something we can anticipate happening to more than half the field after the early contests. As the field narrows, Republican voters will consolidate around the remaining candidates as their first choices exit the race. The distribution of this second or third choice support might well significantly impact the outcome of the Iowa Caucus, especially if front runners like Cruz and Trump remain nearly tied in first-choice support.
Plurality polls are ill equipped to answer these questions, but examining PPP’s head-to-head match ups and robust second choice data hints at how this winnowing process might unfold.
Our simulation shows Cruz earning more support than Trump when candidates are eliminated in each successive round. Trump begins with a 3% lead, but that quickly evaporates in the second round as Cruz receives a 15 percentage point influx of support from defeated candidates. Trump, in comparison, picks up only 6 points between the first and second rounds. In the final head to head contest, most voters who were supporting Rubio flock again to Cruz rather than Trump, extending his lead in the final round to 22 points. As we enter the final stretch leading up to the Iowa Caucus, polls that fully consider more than just voter’s first preference will be crucial to understanding this crowded field.
Image Source: Gage Skidmore