Without an Instant Runoff, Trump Favored to Win GOP Nomination

Posted by Rob Richie on February 26, 2016

*This piece was modified on February 29 with the addition of two new head-to-head polls from YouGov.

Last night Donald Trump received harder body blows than ever before in a Republican presidential debate, but it may be too late for those seeking to stop his run to the GOP nomination.

After Trump’s lopsided victory in the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday – following his big wins in primaries in the diverse states of New Hampshire and South Carolina – only three scenarios could possibly deny him the nomination: 1) an unlikely sea-change in the preferences of his supporters; 2) an even more unlikely reduction in the Republican field to just one opponent before March 15; or 3) an impossible entry into an alternate universe where ranked choice voting was being used in this year’s primaries.

As far as changes in the minds of the voters, tonight’s GOP debate was likely the last big chance for that to happen. Polls consistently show that Trump’s voters are by far the most loyal and sure of their choice. Absent a bigger stumble than any last night or fresh information that affects voter opinion, at least a third of the GOP primary electorate is likely to keep backing Trump.

The second and third scenarios, based on when the field might be reduced to only two candidates in lieu of having an instant runoff with ranked choice voting ballots, are the most problematic for our representative democracy. With our current plurality voting rules, Trump’s success depends less on what most voters want than on the vagaries of whether certain candidates drop out. It also means that representative outcomes depend on forcing out candidates who often have important perspectives and loyal supporters.

By the Numbers

Want some evidence? See this review of every poll we found where the pollster asked questions that allowed head-to-head comparisons and often asked who people would prefer if the field were reduced to the three frontrunners (Trump and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz). Keep an eye on a few facts:

  • Trump leads in the plurality choice by at least 10% in in 13 of the 15 non-Iowa polls, yet the head-to-head comparisons with Cruz and/or Rubio trails in eight of those polls and a lead of more than 2% in only polls (one in Florida this week, two earlier polls in North Carolina).

  • Trump leads the head-to-head contests in just seven of all 18 polls, but leads in the three-way contests in 12 polls where that information is provided, including all in which he starts out at least 10% head and all but two outside of Iowa.

  • In all 18 polls, Rubio and Cruz close the gap between the plurality choice and the head-to-head comparison, and they close the gap between the plurality vote and the three-way comparison in all but one poll. 

  • In earlier polls there is closer alignment between Cruz and Trump voters than today. The  growing negativity between those candidates by the time of the Iowa caucuses has led to far closer alignment between Cruz and Rubio voters -- pointing to their problem if both candidates stay in the race.
  • Outside of New Hampshire, Cruz generally leads Rubio in head-to-head before February but since Iowa Rubio generally has done better.

Review of Polls

Text is bolded when Trump trails:

Feb. 24-25, 2016, Florida poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump leads Rubio (52% - 38%) and Cruz (62% - 30%)
[Rubio defeats Cruz 60%-26%]
Three Way Trump 51%, Rubio 33%, Cruz 11%
Plurality Vote Trump 45% , Rubio 25%, Cruz 10%
Feb. 14-16, North Carolina poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump trails Rubio (43% - 49%) and leads Cruz (43% - 42%)
[Rubio defeats Cruz 42%-29%]
Three Way Trump 37%, Rubio 26%, Cruz 26%
Plurality Vote Trump 29% , Cruz 19%, Rubio 16%
Feb. 14-16, national poll (NBC/WSJ)
Head-to-Head Trump trails Cruz (40% - 56%) and Rubio (41% - 57%) 
[No Rubio-Cruz comparison]
Three Way (Based on 2nd choice allocation) Cruz 32%, Trump 30%, Rubio 26%
Plurality Vote Trump 26% , Cruz 28%, Rubio 17%
Feb. 14-15, South Carolina poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump leads Cruz (48% - 38%) and Rubio (46% - 45%)
[Rubio leads Cruz 47% - 37%]
Three Way Trump 40%,  Rubio 28%, Cruz 22%
Plurality Vote Trump 35%, Rubio 18%, Cruz 18%
Feb 4-8 and Jan. 21-25, national poll (FairVote/College of William and Mary/YouGov)
Note: Comparisons rely on rankings – more than 90% ranked all 11 candidates
Head-to-Head Trump trails Cruz (49% – 51%) and leads Rubio (54% - 46%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 57% -43%]
Three Way Trump 43%, Cruz 32%, Rubio 25%
Plurality Vote Trump 35%, Cruz 22%, Rubio 13%
Feb 2-3, national poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump trails Cruz (41% - 47%) and Rubio (40% - 52%) 
[Rubio leads Cruz 46% - 40%]
Three Way Trump 33%, Rubio 34%, Cruz 25%
Plurality Vote Trump 25%, Rubio 21%, Cruz 21%
Jan 26-27, Iowa poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump trails Cruz (47% - 40%) (no Trump-Rubio comparison)
[No Cruz-Rubio comparison]
Three Way Trump 36%,  Rubio 25%, Cruz 31%
Plurality Vote Trump 31%, Rubio 14%, Cruz 23%
Jan 18-19, North Carolina poll (Public Policy Polling
Head-to-Head Trump leads Cruz (49% - 41%) and Rubio (52% - 37%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 47% - 32%]
Three Way Trump 43%, Cruz 27%, Rubio 18%
Plurality Vote Trump 38%, Cruz 16%, Rubio 11%
Jan 9-13, national poll (NBC/WSJ)
Head-to-Head Trump trails Cruz (43% - 51%) and leads Rubio (52% - 45%)
[No Cruz-Rubio comparison]
Three Way Trump 40%, Cruz 31%,  Rubio 26%
Plurality Vote Trump 33%, Cruz 20%, Rubio 13%
Jan. 8-10 Iowa poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump trails Cruz (37% - 54%) and Rubio (45% - 46%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 59% - 26%]
Three Way Trump 32%, Cruz 38%, Rubio 22%
Plurality Vote Trump 28%, Cruz 26%, Rubio 13%
Jan. 4-6 New Hampshire poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump trails Cruz (39% - 46%) and Rubio (40% - 52%)
[Rubio leads Cruz 42% - 35%]
Three Way Trump 36%, Rubio 34%, Cruz 19%
Plurality Vote Trump 29%, Rubio 15%, Cruz 10%
Dec. 30, 2015- Jan. 6, 2016, national poll (Economist/YouGov)
Head-to-Head Trump leads Rubio (55% - 35%) and Cruz (51% - 49%)
[Cruz  leads Rubio, 57%-43%]
Three Way Not available
Plurality Vote Trump 36% , Rubio 13%, Cruz 19%
Dec. 18-21, 2015, national poll (Economist/YouGov)
Head-to-Head Trump leads Rubio (54% - 46%) and Cruz (51% - 49%)
[Cruz defeats Rubio, 59%-41%]
Three Way Not available
Plurality Vote Trump 35% , Rubio 14%, Cruz 19%
Dec. 15-16 national poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump leads Cruz (45% - 44%) and Rubio (54% - 38%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 48% – 34%]
Three Way Trump 42%, Cruz 26%, Rubio 22%
Plurality Vote Trump 34%, Cruz 18%, Rubio 13%
Dec 10-13 Iowa poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump trails Cruz (34% - 55%) and Rubio (45% - 49%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 59% - 30%]
Three Way Trump 31%, Cruz 39%,  Rubio 24%
Plurality Vote Trump 28%, Cruz 25%, Cruz 14%
Dec. 4-9, 2015, national poll (Economist/YouGov)
Head-to-Head Trump trails Cruz (47% - 53%) and Rubio (47% - 53%)
[No Rubio-Cruz comparison]
Three Way No 3-way poll question
Plurality Vote Trump 35%, Rubio 18%, Cruz 13%
Dec. 5-7 North Carolina poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump leads Cruz (48% - 41%) and Rubio (53% - 42%)
[Cruz leads Rubio 48% -35%]
Three Way Trump 41%, Cruz 27%, Rubio 24%
Plurality Vote Trump 33%, Cruz 16%, Rubio 14%
Nov. 30-Dec 2, New Hampshire poll (Public Policy Polling)
Head-to-Head Trump trails Cruz (41% - 44%) and ties Rubio (45% - 45%)
[Rubio leads Cruz 43% - 37%]
Three Way Trump 35%, Rubio 32%, Cruz 22%
Plurality Vote Trump 27%, Cruz 13%, Rubio 11%


Polls Reinforce Trump’s Perception as a Winner

Reviewing this history, it’s crystal clear that the 2016 nomination contest would have been dramatically different if pollsters had regularly asked and touted head-to-head comparisons and contests had been held with ranked choice voting. Even those polls would have been different, as part of Trump’s appeal has been the perception that he’s a winner – and polls showing his plurality lead reinforced that image, and have led Republican voters to say (including in FairVote’s YouGov survey) that Trump was the strongest, most viable candidate. Trump’s loss in Iowa quite possibly would have been followed by defeats in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and the whole trajectory of the race would have been different. 

This is not to badmouth Trump. He’s playing by the rules of the game, and his tactics might well have been different with different rules. But is a warning shot to the major parties and state legislators that our current primary voting rules make fair outcomes far too dependent on individual egos – both those of the candidates and of the funders of Super PAC donors who can single-handedly sustain a candidate.

Give Voters More Choice, Stronger Voice in Elections

It doesn’t have to be this way. This Sunday, the Oscar for Best Picture will be chosen by ranked choice voting – an “instant runoff” ballot that avoids vote-splitting and ensures that the majority choice wins once the field is reduced to two. Recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order for elections by mail, ranked choice voting is used in a growing number of elections, including in American cities like Minneapolis (MN) and Oakland (CA) and in other nations like Ireland (for president), Canada (for leaders of the major parties), New Zealand (mayor of Wellington and choice of flag in a recent national referendum) and United Kingdom (for mayor of London and party leaders). In fact, several Republican members of the Utah legislature were selected in ranked choice voting elections to fill vacancies.

Republican primary voters are ready for it as well. In our collaboration with the College of William and Mary on a national YouGov sample of 1,000 likely Republican and independent voters, we found that more than nine in ten chose to rank all 11 Republican candidates, which helped provide a clear insight into the dynamics of the race. Not only that, but 57% said they would like to see RCV for presidential primaries, including 72% of those with an opinion, including more than four in five millennials.

For the moment, though, the race is Donald’s Trump’s to lose – even if he continues to often fall short of majority support.

Image source: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

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