Voices & Choices

FairVote analysis of new South Carolina poll

FairVote analysis of new South Carolina poll

On December 9, FairVote sponsored a YouGov ranked choice voting poll of 400 likely South Carolina Democratic primary voters. 

The FairVote/YouGov poll provided survey respondents with more opportunities to explain their relative support of candidates than typically provided in campaign polls released to the public. Most importantly, we invited respondents to rank up to 10 of the 18 Democratic candidates then seeking election in order of preference, with a separate opportunity to rank the five frontrunners at that time: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg. 

The findings are revealing. The interactive tools on our website allows users to filter these data by demographic groups, simulate a ranked choice voting tally and simulate head-to-head contests. Our findings underscore Joe Biden’s strength in South Carolina.

This study of likely Democratic voters in South Carolina is significant as the first of its kind in a state with an early, open primary and a large African American population. The state will host the country’s second 2020 presidential primary, and will be the fourth state to select its Democratic nominee, coming just after the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa and Nevada caucuses.1 This makes it an early gauge of voter support. Additionally, approximately 30% of South Carolina’s registered voters identify as nonwhite, making the state a good indicator of support among minority communities.2

It is important to note that between the time this poll began and the release of its results, three candidates, Joe Sestak, Steve Bullock and top-five candidate Kamala Harris, chose to end their presidential campaigns. However, thanks to the ranking component of the poll, our analysis has been able to adapt to these new conditions. We have incorporated the second preferences of these former candidates’ supporters, and transferred their votes accordingly. Additionally, the somewhat smaller sample size compared to our September poll reduces the number of votes which can potentially transfer between candidates. 

FairVote is a nonpartisan reform organization with no candidate preference. Our goal with this report is to draw attention to better ways to understand voter preferences and elect candidates from crowded fields. This report features charts that provide greater insight into the current Democratic field. Just as with FairVote’s YouGov survey from September 2019, this survey addresses a shortcoming of most media coverage of opinion research. In fields this large, understanding voter preferences requires more than looking at just a single indication of preference.

Key Findings

  • The Democratic frontrunner in South Carolina is Joe Biden: By every measure that takes into consideration both breadth and depth of support, Biden leads the pack at this early stage of the contest in South Carolina. This differs from our nationwide poll conducted in September which found Elizabeth Warren in the lead.
  • Head-to-head comparison: Biden leads in single-choice support with 40.3%, followed by Sanders with 14.4%, Pete Buttigieg with 11%, and Warren with 9.6%. Head-to-head, Biden also leads Warren with 68.7% to 31.3% and Sanders with 66% to 34%.
  • If Biden were to leave the race, support would shift in some surprising ways: Removing Biden from the field makes Sanders the first round leader, with Buttigieg falling behind Elizabeth Warren and Tom Steyer. In a ranked choice voting tally, Buttigieg would place second in the final round, losing to Sanders by 61% to 39%.
  • Head-to-head against other candidates: By eliminating all but any two candidates, we can assess how candidates compete head-to-head. Biden beats each other candidate with at least 66.0% (his percent against Sanders). Sanders places second by this measure, beating every candidate except Biden. Warren places third, followed by a tie between Buttigieg, Steyer and Harris, who each win against 13 of the 18 candidates.
  • Breadth of support measured by rankings: Overall, Biden is ranked in the top three by 62.8% of respondents, as compared to 41.8% and 40.9% of respondents who placed Sanders and Warren among their three leading candidates respectively. Though Buttigieg places third in terms of first choice preferences, he was ranked in the top three preferences of just 24% of respondents. This is the same level of top-three support held by Tom Steyer.
  • Differences by racial group: Biden is the leader in first-choices among both white and African American respondents. However, African American respondents are nearly twice as likely to list Biden as their top choice, and 53.7% of African Americans respondents say they have a “very favorable” opinion of Biden. Among white respondents, 29.9% of report a “very favorable” opinion. Among African American respondents, Buttigieg comes in eighth with only 1.3% of first-choice support, though among white respondents he is in second place, and wins head-to-head against each of the other candidates including Biden. Only 8.0% of African Americans say they have a “very favorable” opinion of Buttigieg, while 36.7% of white respondents report a “very favorable” opinion of Buttigieg.
  • Favorability: Sanders has the highest favorability score among the 18 candidates, with 69.8% rating him very or somewhat favorably, as compared to 23.9% rating him unfavorably. However, Biden has the highest proportion of very favorable opinions – by far – at 42%. Biden, Sanders and Warren all have net favorability ratings greater than 40% (net favorability = very and somewhat favorable score - very and somewhat unfavorable score).
  • Still a divided field: Nearly one-quarter of respondents chose a candidate outside the top four as their first choice preference. Of those respondents, 43.3% selected yet another non-frontrunner as their second choice, while 21.6% gave their second choice support to Biden and 19.6% to Sanders.
  • On new candidates Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg: Just 1% and 0.9% of respondents gave Patrick and Bloomberg their first choice support respectively. Patrick was among 7% of respondents’ top three preferences, while Bloomberg was at 5.2%.
  • The impact of Harris’s departure: Although Harris had very low first choice support (coming in eighth just after Andrew Yang), her campaign did have an impact. Using ranking data, we can easily remove her from the initial count and see the resulting changes to the field. For example, once eliminated, more of Harris’ support goes to Biden than to Sanders. Although she placed eighth in first choices, Harris was one of only four candidates to be ranked among the top seven choices on a majority of ballots.
  • General attributes in a nominee sought by Democratic voters: Among participants who listed defeating Donald Trump as their top factor in picking a candidate, 58.9% believed Biden would be the best choice. Biden also scored highest among respondents who wanted to select a candidate who would be a historic choice for president (46.8%), best reflects their own values (26.5%), and has the best policy ideas (31.8%).
  • Voters are ready to rank candidates in surveys – and elections: When presented with the top five frontrunners, more than 92% of participants chose to rank more than one, and 84% of participants ranked all. More than 56% of respondents said they favor ranked choice voting, as opposed to only 21.3% who indicated they opposed it. Additionally, of those who expressed a preference between RCV and South Carolina’s runoff system (currently used for non-presidential primaries), 55.0% said they prefer RCV, while 45.0% would keep runoffs.

1 National Conference of State Legislatures. “2020 State Primary Election Dates,” October 15, 2019. http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/2020-state-primary-election-dates.aspx.

2 South Carolina Election Commission. “South Carolina Voter Registration Demographics - Statewide Demographics by Race,” October 2019. https://www.scvotes.org/cgi-bin/scsec/96vr?countykey=ALL&D1=RACE.


Join Us Today to Help Create a More Perfect Union