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nationaljournal.com | MARGIN FOR ERROR: When 2nd Place Is Not Always The First Loser

// Published May 11, 2006
The following appeared in Hotline/National Journal's paid section on Friday, May 5. We reproduce it here with permission from the original publisher.

For today's Margin we have a special treat -- the exec. dir of the Center for Voting and Democracy Rob Richie is our guest columnist, offering a different view on WH '08 polls, looking at both first and second choices for WH candidates.

There is a lot that can be learned from second-choice polls. Back in '99, for example, a second choice poll in VA found that then-TX Gov. George Bush was a strong second choice of other GOP presidential candidates, including winning the second choices of more than 95% of Gary Bauer voters. These numbers help explain Sen. John McCain's ultimate trajectory toward the center and winning indie voters -- he wasn't going to win from GOP partisans.

It's early, and name recognition obviously is a big factor at this point, but Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) seems to be in a similar position to Bush heading into 2000. For instance, contrast Clinton with John Kerry. Clinton has 38% of first choices, compared to 42% for the rest of the field. Kerry is at 14%, ahead of Edwards with 13%. But Kerry in fact is in a bigger hole than even these numbers suggest. While Kerry "wins" the second choice vote, the great bulk of his second choices come from Clinton backers -- only 23 of his 107 second choices come from the 178 respondents who listed someone other than Clinton and Kerry as a first choice. Kerry finishes no better than third as the second choice of all other candidates except for Edwards -- where Clinton does nearly three times as well. In contrast, Clinton wins 61 second choice votes among these 107 supporters of others candidates, and is the top second choice of everyone except ex-VA Gov. Mark Warner (where she barely trails Edwards)and Sen. Joe Biden (where she barely trails Warner).

These numbers suggest that Clinton has relatively deep support as well as broad support and that unlike Kerry, she's perceived as a winner. The seething resentment so many Dems feel toward Bush make Dems resent Kerry for his defeat -- and long for the victories of '92 and '96. If so, that would suggest that Clinton's biggest concern will be whether people come to see her as not a likely winner and a relatively weak general election candidate -- Dems want to win. Her secondary concern would be a version of the McCain candidacy in '00 -- a Dem who gains enthusiastic support outside the party in open primary states like NH.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the GOP field is much less settled. With no candidate over 25% in first choices, frontrunners McCain and ex-NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) are well within striking distance, and analyzing second choices shows that neither shows depth throughout the party. McCain is the second choice of 51 of Giuliani's 141 backers, but only 22 of the 143 backers of all the remaining candidates. Giuliani is the second choice of 37 of these respondents, putting him in somewhat better position (his combined first and second choice total puts him 6% ahead of McCain), but given that both McCain and Giuliani have such high name recognition, the hesitancy about both of them obviously has to be a concern. Among those trailing behind, Sen. Maj. Leader Bill Frist (R) and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich may see that only one of them can move into the top tier. Both of their backers list the other as their favorite second choice, suggesting they are drawing on similar voters -- and there are not enough of these voters for both to run strongly.

[ More from FairVote Blog on 2nd choice polls ] [ Get the poll numbers ]