The South Carolina Republican Primary: Is Trump the Majority Choice?

Posted by Rob Richie on February 17, 2016

In the wake of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, South Carolina’s primary on Saturday looms large for defining the race for the Republican presidential nomination. More than half of the original field has dropped out, and South Carolina may reduce the field to just three or four candidates. It also may cement businessman Donald Trump’s status as the frontrunner.

There’s no doubt that Trump is far ahead in the polls when facing five candidates. He’s led in every South Carolina poll since early November, and the 10 post-New Hampshire primary polls in South Carolina, as reported on Real Clear Politics, show him securing between 33% and 42%, of the vote with his closest challenger Ted Cruz averaging just 18%. Given that South Carolina allocates delegates on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district, such a margin could mean a clean sweep of convention delegates for Trump.

But a more nuanced analysis of the polls shows that Trump’s high floor of support comes with a relatively low ceiling. Public Policy Poll again deserves kudos for being the one pollster to ask more probing questions that allow such an analysis. They ask and report second choice data fully, and they also ask how Trump would do if only facing his top competitors.

As part of our ongoing series based on PPP polls, we’ve done a simulation based on the latest South Carolina poll from PPP of a ranked choice voting contest in which the first round results are compared to what happens when the trailing candidates are eliminated and the field is reduced to three, and when the last-place finisher is eliminated and the field is reduced to two. Watch what happens.

infogram_0_ppp_data_feb_16thPPP Data Feb. 16th //

This simulation is almost certainly what would happen with ranked choice voting in which voters rank the candidates in order of choice, and ballot-counting follows this same algorithm. Although Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio trail Trump by 35% to 18% in first choices, the contest dramatically changes once Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. John Kasich, and Dr. Ben Carson are eliminated. Rubio moves into second, well ahead of Cruz. Once Cruz is eliminated after the second round, his voters overwhelmingly back Rubio over Trump. In the final round with only Trump and Rubio, it’s a statistical tie.

Of course South Carolina doesn’t use ranked choice voting, and Donald Trump is playing by the rules of this year’s game. Perhaps if he knew that he would have to raise his ceiling of support to win, he would modify his scorched earth campaign tactics against his competitors and attempt to expand his base. But as it is, he doesn’t need to as long as the Republican field remains fractured.

A few final observations.

  • The first round margin in the PPP poll is similar to the margins in the New Hampshire primary. Despite his landslide win in a fractured field, our analysis of PPP polling there indicated Trump might well have lost in a one-on-one contest. Keep in mind that he barely edged out Hillary Clinton in popular votes, and was far behind the votes won by Bernie Sanders - -a fair comparison given that unaffiliated voters in New Hampshire can choose which contest to vote in. (Notably, if New Hampshire’s results governed who went to the November ballot and it used the “Top Two”: primary results, Trump only narrowly would have squeaked onto the November ballot despite more New Hampshire voters overall choosing to vote in the Republican contest than the Democratic one.)
  • To underscore how Trump’s tactics for the moment are lowering his ceiling of support, the PPP data (see page 8 of its release) shows that Cruz voters give 32% of their second choices to Rubio, and only 11% to Trump. In contrast, before Trump started attacking Cruz, the November 2015 PPP poll in South Carolina showed that Trump and Rubio were essentially tied as the second choice of Cruz voters, with Trump securing 19% and Rubio 22%. (See page 11 of PPP release.)
  • Some voting method reformers support approval voting, which would elect the candidate with the highest rate of approval. In this system, a voter approving more than one candidate will have their vote count for more than one candidate at the same time, and a candidate can lose despite being the first choice of more than half of voters. The PPP data reveals that Ben Carson right now might win an approval voting contest going way, as his approval rate of 68% is far higher than that of Rubio (58%), Kasich (52%), Trump (50%), Cruz (42%) and Bush (41%). Such results underscore FairVote’s concerns regarding the viability of an approval voting system in meaningfully contested elections.

Stay tuned for our release tomorrow of our recent national YouGov survey of a representative sample of 1,000 Republicans and independents done in partnership with the College of William and Mary. More than nine in ten respondents ranked all 11 Republican candidates (we started the survey before the Iowa caucuses), and our findings will provide a similarly important narrative about the Trump candidacy.

Thanks to my colleague Molly Rockett for her work on this series and producing the graphic above.


Photo Courtesy: ABC Television

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