Last month, FairVote analyzed survey data from Public Policy Polling (PPP) to conduct a simulated ranked choice voting (RCV) primary that revealed a tight race between Marco Rubio and Donald Trump for the lead among New Hampshire’s GOP primary voters, despite Trump’s large apparent lead in polls that only focus on first choices. Our similar analysis of a national PPP poll last month showed Ted Cruz moving from well behind Trump into a dead heat by the final round.
The latest PPP survey of New Hampshire voters from early January shows marked gains for Rubio, especially as a backup choice for voters who would pick a different candidate first. This means that in an RCV primary, Rubio’s support would grow as weaker candidates are eliminated, leaving him well positioned to earn a majority among Republican voters. Trump’s support, in contrast, demonstrates weaker growth as the field narrows, according to our latest ranked choice primary simulation. In the final one-on-one comparison, simulating an “instant runoff” between the two candidates, Rubio would defeat Trump easily despite trailing himy 29% to 15% in first choices.
Many of the media narratives surrounding each candidate’s standing in the primary race rely on “plurality polling,” polls that ask voters only for their first choices, despite the fact that these figures can be highly misleading in races with such a crowded field. By asking voters for more than just their first-choice candidate, polls can provide a much fuller picture of the race, and provide insights on the likely evolution of the contest as candidates begin to drop out. Unfortunately, few polls ask for more than top line first choices. PPP’s combination of second choice data and robust head-to-head quieres make it clear that first choices don’t tell the whole story.
For example, while Trump leads the first round of our ranked choice primary with 29% of first choices, each subsequent round sees that lead diminish. When we narrow the field to only Trump, Rubio, and Ted Cruz, Trump’s lead shrinks considerably as supporters of eliminated candidates transfer their support to Rubio or Cruz. Trump gains only 11% of second-choice support between the first and second round, and only 3% additional support between the second and final round. Rubio, comparatively, gains 23% in the second round and 18% in the final round. After Ted Cruz is eliminated and voters are left with the choice between Rubio and Trump alone, Rubio easily emerges the victor. Even though Rubio begins our simulation in second place with only 15% of first-choices, his robust appeal as a “back up” choice would propel him to the front of the race as the field narrows.
Our matchup of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio does not perfectly reflect a ranked choice primary because Cruz actually was behind Jeb Bush when the field was reduced to three, yet PPP didn’t ask voters for their preferences among Trump, Rubio, and Bush. Nevertheless, the final two would have been Rubio and Trump regardless, and the simulation shows how allowing voters to express a second or third preference fundamentally shifts the landscape of the race. If Republican voters could rank all candidates instead of just choosing one, the leading candidate would be the one with the broadest appeal among those with a passionate base of support. PPP’s latest data suggests Rubio would stand to gain the most from such a shift in New Hampshire, easily outperforming his more polarizing counterparts in later rounds.
Below are a few other notable insights from this and other recent polls.
Rubio would likely win a ranked choice voting contest in New Hampshire right now, but he is not the only candidate who could defeat Trump in a one-on-one contest. Cruz also defeats Trump despite trailing 29% to 10% in first choices, and Jeb Bush nearly ties Trump despite a similar first round deficit. PPP did not ask respondents for their preferences between Trump and other relatively strong finishers such as Christie and Kasich (both with 11% in the first round).
Rubio defeats Cruz 1-on-1 as well, and would seem well-positioned to defeat other candidates 1-on-1.
In PPP’s useful presentation of second choice data, you can see who backers of any candidate are most likely to name as a second choice. Of Bush’s backers, for example, Christie is more than 20 times as likely to be ranked second as Trump. Christie’s voters are 30 times more likely to rank Rubio second than Trump, however Cruz’s voters are 33 times more likely to rank Trump second than Bush.
Although most polls continue to focus on first choices, we wanted to highlight two others that didn’t in the past week. First, NBC News highlighted its second choice data by showing visually where voters’ second choices go in an analysis in which they ask “who stands to topple Donald Trump once the field narrows?” They conclude that Cruz stands to gain the most, although their analysis is limited by only focusing on second choices and not fuller expressions of rankings. Second, California’s Field Poll found that Cruz narrowly leads Trump in first choices, by 25% to 23%, but Cruz is far more likely to earn second choice support.
Image Courtesy: Gage Skidmore