Posted by Emily Risch on December 09, 2019 at 1:14 PM


FairVote/YouGov South Carolina “Ranked Choice” Poll Clarifies Democratic Voter Preferences in Crowded Presidential Field

Poll in early primary state includes voter rankings of candidates and insights into front-runner Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg and former candidate Kamala Harris

Biden assessed as South Carolina frontrunner through poll’s analytic tools
Poll gives notable insights into preferences of African American voters

South Carolina--A FairVote/YouGov poll of South Carolina Democratic voters in the 2020 presidential race showcases the benefits of surveying through a ranked choice lens -- showing voters’ top issues and candidates ranked in order of preference and giving greater insight into the state of a crowded Democratic 2020 race than traditional “single choice” analyses.

FairVote’s presentation of findings includes a series of online interactive tools and an initial report on featured insights and toplines from YouGov. On its website, FairVote allows users to filter voter preference by demographic groups (see link below), simulate a ranked choice voting tally and head-to-head contests between different candidates, and see what happens as the primary field narrows to two candidates. 

“This survey 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,” said FairVote president and CEO Rob Richie. “In a field this large, and in a state that is an important early gauge of voter support, ranked-choice surveys allow us a greater understanding of voter preferences and the potential trajectory of the race than single-choice polling, and help address real shortcomings in the coverage of typical opinion research.”

According to multiple measures that take into account candidates’ breadth and depth of support, the survey’s findings show Joe Biden as the overwhelming frontrunner among Democratic voters in South Carolina. It also shows:

  • Head-to-head comparison: Biden’s strength is not measured only by his lead in single choice support with 40.3%, followed by Bernie Sanders with 14.4%, Pete Buttigieg with 11%, and Warren with 9.6%. When using rankings to simulate head-to-head comparisons, Biden leads by a landslide, with his closest rivals being Sanders (66% to 34%) and Warren (69% to 31%).

  • If Biden were to leave the race, support would shift: Removing Biden from the field would lead to a drop for Buttigieg. While Sanders would assume first place, Warren would take second. Tom Steyer would finish ahead of Buttigieg in the first round.

  • Sanders is the second strongest candidate in head-to-head comparisons: Bernie Sanders would defeat all other candidates head-to-head except for Biden, including Warren by 54% to 46%. Warren is the third strongest candidate in head-to-head comparisons.  

  • Biden leads in single choice support and in 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. Buttigieg and Steyer tie with 24%, followed by Harris with 21% and Booker with 14%.  

  • African American voter support for Biden: South Carolina will be the first Democratic primary with a heavily African American electorate, with this survey based on 47% African American participation. African American respondents are nearly twice as likely as white voters to list Biden as their top choice -- 84% of African Americans respondents rank him in their top three and 53.7% say they have a “very favorable” opinion of Biden. Among African American voters head-to-head, Biden leads Sanders 77% to 23%, and Warren 83% to 17%, and earns more than 90% against every other candidates including 95% to 5% over Buttigieg and 98% to 2% over Michael Bloomberg. 

  • Buttigieg comes in eighth among Among African American respondents, with only 1.3% of first-choice support. Buttigieg’s support among African American and white voters is starkly different. Among white respondents he is in second place, and he wins head-to-head against each of the other candidates including Biden. He is ranked in the top three by 37% of white voters. He is ranked in the top three by only 9% of black voters, however trailing seven other candidates, including Mariane Williamson. 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. 

  • African American views of rest of field: Among African American voters, Sanders leads all candidates except Biden head-to-head. Five candidates are ranked in the top three by more than 20% of African American voters: Biden (84%), Sanders (48%), Warren (41%), Steyer (28%) and Harris (23%, despite being ranked as a top choice by less than 1% of African American voters). As with Biden, these are higher percentages for each of these candidates than the share of white voters ranking them in their top three. But as with Buttigieg, some candidates do far less well with black voters. Among notable differences in “top three ranking” support include Tulsi Gabbard (12% of white voters, 1% of African American voters), Andrew Yang (14% of white voters and 5% of African American voters) and Michael Bloomberg (8% of white voters and 3% of African Amercan voters).

  • Sanders has the best favorability in the entire field, with 69.8% rating him very or somewhat favorably, as compared to 23.9% unfavorable. 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% (note that “net favorability” is equal to subtracting the very/somewhat unfavorable score from the very/somewhat favorable score).

  • General attributes in a nominee sought by Democratic voters: Among participants who listed defeating Donald Trump as their top factor in picking a candidate, 59% believed Biden would be the best candidate. Biden also scored highest among respondents who wanted to select a candidate who would be a historic choice for president (47%), best reflects their own values (27%) and has the best policy ideas (32%). 

The survey’s topline findings also include that voters are ready to rank candidates according to their preference in surveys and in elections. Details of these findings include: 

  • When presented with the top five frontrunners, more than 92% of participants chose to rank more than one, and 84% ranked all. Large majorities of participants found ranking candidates easy to do.

  • More than 56% of respondents say they favor ranked choice voting, as opposed to only 21.3% who indicated they opposed it. Additionally, 55% of participants with an opinion said they prefer ranked choice voting to South Carolina’s current runoff election system, while 45% stated they prefer runoffs.

Ranked choice polls can indicate who might benefit or be hurt by a candidate’s rise or fall in support, and give insight into the race even as the field changes. For example during the time between this poll was conducted and release of its results, three candidates, Joe Sestak, Steve Bullock and top-five candidate Kamala Harris ended their presidential campaigns. The second preferences of these former candidates’ supporters have been taken into account and their votes transferred accordingly. 

The FairVote/YouGov survey of Democratic voters comes as ranked choice voting has growing momentum nationwide ahead of 2020. Where it is used, RCV can help ensure that representatives are grounded in majority support, avoiding the “spoiler effect” of votes getting split, and solving the problem of time-consuming and expensive runoff elections that typically generate lower turnout. 

Maine will be the first state to use ranked choice voting to decide Electoral College votes in the general presidential election in 2020, and will allow RCV for presidential primaries starting in 2024. Four state Democratic parties (in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming) plan to have voters cast RCV ballots in their delegate selection process for 2020 while early voters in Nevada will cast ranked choice ballots that will be integrated into in-person caucus voters. Voters can rank their favorite candidates in order of choice and those ballots will be tallied like a traditional RCV tally until all remaining candidates have at least 15% support, at which points delegates will be allocated on a proportional basis according to party rules.

The online survey of 423 likely South Carolina Democratic Presidential primary voters drawn from the voter roll was conducted by YouGov from Nov. 22 - Dec. 2 and has a margin of error of 7.5%. The survey included Kamala Harris, Steve Bullock and Joe Sestak when they were active candidates.


Interact with subsets of the data at (additional queries possible):

All 18 candidates

Current 15 candidates

Top 5 candidates

Top 4 candidates

Female voters

Male voters

Black voters

White voters

College-educated voters

Non college-educated voters

Voters born before 1970

Voters born 1970 or after


FairVote is a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice, and a representative democracy that works for all Americans. 

Join Us Today to Help Create a More Perfect Union