Voices & Choices

What FairVote’s Ranked Choice Voting Polls Say About the "Veepstakes"

What FairVote’s Ranked Choice Voting Polls Say About the

FairVote partnered with leading pollsters on three rigorous ranked choice voting (RCV) polls over the course of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary season. These RCV polls offer greater insights than traditional single-choice polling into the strengths and weaknesses of three women who have been among the frontrunners to be Joe Biden’s Democratic vice presidential (VP) nominees: Senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren. 

In multi-candidate fields, RCV polls are better able to capture candidates’ breadth of support and anticipate which candidates are best positioned to assemble a majority coalition. As presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden prepares to select a vice presidential nominee before the 2020 Democratic National Convention starts on August 17, party activists and analysts are making their case for which VP nominee would most improve the party’s performance in the November general election. RCV polls help to better evaluate these arguments and can be used by any political party or media outlet to identify potential consensus candidates. We hasten to qualify that this analysis is not designed to make a recommendation; rather, it is to show just how much you learn with RCV polling methods.

Background on the Polls

FairVote commissioned three scientific polls of likely Democratic presidential primary voters: a national YouGov survey of 1,002 likely Democratic voters in September 2019, a South Carolina YouGov survey of 400 likely voters in November-December 2020 when all three women were active candidates, and a national SurveyUSA poll of 825 voters in February 2020 after Harris had dropped out. Participants were allowed to rank up to 10 candidates in the two YouGov polls and up to 8 candidates in the SurveyUSA poll, creating a rich data set — not only to simulate ranked choice voting but to enable head-to-head comparisons among all participants and by demographic groups such as African Americans and women.

Warren Has the Broadest Support Across Three RCV Polls

FairVote’s interactive presentation of each of the polls allows viewers to create their own matchups by “clicking out” candidates and having their support redistributed to remaining candidates based on respondents’ ranked preferences. In each poll we commissioned, Warren was the leader when the field was narrowed to Harris, Klobuchar, and Warren. Harris suspended her campaign on Dec. 3, 2019 so was not included in our February 2020 poll. 


YouGov National Poll of Likely Democratic Voters, Sept. 2 - 6, 2019 


YouGov South Carolina Poll of Likely Democratic Voters, Nov. 22 - Dec. 2, 2019


SurveyUSA National Poll of Likely Democratic Voters, Feb. 25 - 26, 2020


Overall Breadth of Support

Considering respondents’ backup choices is another measurement that illustrates Warren’s overall breadth of support in the polls. In the South Carolina poll, Warren was ranked in the top three by 41% of respondents, while Harris and Klobuchar were top-3 choices among 21% and 9% of respondents, respectively. And in the February 2020 national poll, Warren was the only female candidate ranked in the top four by more than half of voters.

Level of Support from Black Democrats 

The Nov. 22 - Dec. 2 YouGov South Carolina Poll of Democratic voters featured 188 Black respondents. Among Black respondents in the poll, Warren wins 7% of first-choices, Harris wins 0.3%, and Klobuchar wins 0.2%. If the other candidates are excluded from the matchup and the results are narrowed to just the preferences between the three candidates among Black respondents, the result is Warren earns 54%, Harris earns 45%, and Klobuchar earns 1%. 

Warren’s relative strength among Black voters in the polls holds up with the top-3 measure as well. The percentage of Black respondents who ranked one of the VP contenders as a top-3 choice in South Carolina broke down as follows: Warren - 41%, Harris - 23%, Klobuchar - 1%.

FairVote’s Feb. 2020 national poll did not feature Harris, but it allows a simulated matchup between Warren and Klobuchar. When the sample is narrowed to Black respondents, Warren wins this matchup 82% - 18% over Klobuchar.  

Considering Other Demographic Groups 

A lot of Biden “Veepstakes” speculation centers around the ability of various potential VP candidates to help turn out different voting groups in the Democratic coalition. We can use the three RCV polls to analyze how Harris, Klobuchar, and Warren performed with various demographic groups, including Democrats Under 40 and Sanders Supporters.

Democrats Under 40 

FairVote’s two national RCV polls featured the largest samples of Democrats under 40. In a simulated head-to-head among these young voters in the September 2019 poll, the result is Warren - 60%, Harris - 33%, and Klobuchar - 6%. Meanwhile, the result among young Democrats in the February 2020 poll is Warren winning the head-to-head vs. Klobuchar 80% - 20%. 

Supporters of Senator Sanders

Many analyses of the VP selection are interested in who can help Biden ensure robust support from those who previously backed Senator Bernie Sanders, the second place finisher in the Democratic primaries. Considering the second choices of Sanders supporters across the three RCV polls can help answer this question. The only time Warren was not the most popular second choice among Sanders supporters was when Biden himself was the most popular. 

Of respondents who chose Sanders as their first choice in the September 2019 national poll, Warren was the most popular backup choice with 39% ranking her second. Among Sanders supporters in the December 2019 South Carolina poll, 38% chose Biden as their second choice and 33% ranked Warren second. Finally, among Sanders supporters in the February 2020 national poll, 33% ranked Warren second, making her the most popular second choice again.


As this review illustrates, RCV polls are abundantly useful in their ability to simulate head-to-head matchups and compare backup choices. Among the three female senators compared in this overview, Warren performs the best across a variety of metrics. However, this overview is by no means an endorsement of Warren and does not confirm she would be Democrats’ strongest nominee. Indeed, there are other notable VP contenders who were not polled, and some analysts may prefer to poll potential VP choices among likely general election voters — not likely Democratic voters, as the polls analyzed in this overview did. 

As Joel Goldstein, one of the nation’s top experts on the vice presidency, noted in a recent article, the VP selection is notoriously fluid and hard to predict up until the selection itself. Moving forward, future RCV polls could be one of the best tools for understanding the coalitions of the major parties and the reasoning behind the often unpredictable work of choosing a VP nominee.


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