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Second choice polls let us gauge breadth, depth of candidate support

by Jack Santucci // Published May 5, 2006
Like instant runoff voting (IRV), second choice polls let respondents indicate whom they'd support if their first choice did not have enough votes to win an election. Hotline/Diageo have been conducting monthly second-choice polls for a while now.

Second-choice polls tell us a lot about the climate of opinion among a party's rank-and-file. They're a window on how voters will feel at the general election, after the dust of primaries has settled and a nominee is tapped.

The number of first choices a candidate receives is a good indication of his or her core support - that is, the number of voters preferring that candidate to all others. Second choices are good indicators of breadth of support - i.e. the number of voters who prefer a candidate when forced to consider viable ones. A poll that includes first and second choices lets us zero in on a likely winner - just like IRV balances core and broad support to zero in on a majority winner.

Hotline/Diageo's latest poll on 2008 hopefuls show the Dems settling on Hillary Clinton and a Republican party where much is in flux. Clinton leads first choices with 38% core support, followed by 14% for Kerry. While Kerry leads second choices at 22%, most of those respondents listed Clinton as their first choice. Under IRV, those ballots would transfer to Hillary. So would the 21% second choice votes she got from other candidates' supporters. Clearly, Clinton enjoys high levels of support - core and overall - within the party.

No Republican has an impressive plurality of first choice votes, telling us core support has not really coalesced anywhere - yet. McCain and Giuliani are close, but neither has serious second-choice support in the party. Frist and Gingrich share the same base of supporters; the second choices of each candidate's first-choice voters go to the other candidate.