As the Primaries season continues into March, many watching the race are increasingly eager to crown winners and losers, not just in specific states, but for the entire nomination contest. With attention honed in on coronating a victor, it’s useful to remember that the “winner” in plurality elections often fails to reflect a majority of voters. The shortcomings of plurality systems explain why Donald Trump remains in the driver’s seat in the Republican nomination contest, despite being opposed by a majority of voters in head-to-head matchups with his GOP rivals. Voters’ first choices are only one small piece of the puzzle. Polls (and elections) that use only first choices miss the underlying depth of candidates’ support.
To address the plurality problem, we recently conducted a ranked choice poll in partnership with the College of William and Mary as well as Yougov, to demonstrate how ranking candidates provides voters with more meaningful choices and pollsters with more accurate information about the shape of the race. It allows us to simulate a national GOP primary using ranked choice voting (RCV).
In our poll, Donald Trump earned about 37% of first choices, more than any other candidate, and comparable to his support in other polls and primaries conducted thus far. Yesterday Trump won Michigan, for example, with about 36.5% of the vote. However, despite Trump’s continued success in earning delegates throughout the early primary contests, our poll shows that a ranked choice election would reveal a very different narrative.
When voters are allowed to rank the candidates, it becomes clear that Donald Trump’s base of support is strong, but narrow; relatively few supporters of other candidates choose to shift their support to Trump as the field narrows. Despite his strong showing among first choices, only about 10% of respondents rank Trump as their second choice. Additionally, 22% of voters rank Trump eleventh, giving him more last place rankings than any other candidate. Trump’s diminishing share of support through the rounds of voting stands in stark contrast with the performance of candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who earn robust support among second, third, and fourth choices.
Trump’s relative weakness as a second choice is obvious not just in the round-by-round RCV tally, but also in a candidate-by-candidate analysis of second preferences. For example, among Rubio supporters, only 7.9% ranked Trump as their second pick, while 34.7% ranked Cruz second. Among Kasich supporters, Trump earns only 5.8% of second choices compared to the 31.0% who rank Cuz second and 26.5% who rank Rubio second. These results not only provide a fuller picture of how narrow Trump’s base of support is, they also hint at which candidates stand to gain the most if others drop out.
Most importantly, a ranked choice election would allow support to consolidate around the candidate with the broadest appeal. Voters would no longer have to worry about voting strategically or splitting the vote by supporting a less popular candidate. In our simulation, after Marco Rubio is eliminated, Ted Cruz wins the election with the help of an influx of support from Rubio’s voters. The rankings ensured that Rubio’s voters, along with the supporters of other eliminated candidates, still had a voice in the election after their first choice was out of the race.
This year’s GOP nomination contest illustrates the value of ranked choice voting for both opinion polls and primary elections. To more accurately predict the potential trajectory of races, polling agencies should ask for and report more than just a voter’s first choice. Only Public Policy Polling has consistently reported head-to-head match ups, and the full breakdown of second choice preferences. With so four candidates still crowding the GOP field, it’s clear that ranked choice voting would be a valuable tool for understanding the true preferences of Republican voters.
Image Source: Politico