Pollsters: Catch a clue and ask a second choice in key 2008 races

by Rob Richie // Published October 26, 2008
American pollsters are keeping busy. Devotees of sites like Real Clear Politics (and I admit it can be addictive) know just how many polls are being done out there.

I have a simple request of our pollsters: whenever there are credible choices beyond two, don't simply ask voters for one choice. Sure, that's the voting rule we may be stuck with on Election Day, given our typical plurality voting method, but pollsters don't have to be stuck in that conventional approach. We in fact learn a lot more from voters if you ask for more information about their choices. For example:

* You can ask voters to rate candidates on a scale of one to ten. I'm not a fan of that system as a voting method for real elections, as it's so prone to tactical voting, but it's a sensible polling device to see not just who's getting a vote, but how much people like their choices -- and what they might think of candidates they've decided not to support

* You can simply ask voters to indicate their second and third choice after you ask them for their first choice. It's easy to ask the question, and you learn a lot -- not just which candidate is the one a majority is most likely to support, but how the race might evolve if a particular candidates gains or loses support.

The presidential race has credible candidates outside the major parties -- two former Members of Congress (Libertarian Bob Barr and Green Cynthia McKinney), a candidate endorsed by Congressman Ron Paul (Constitution Party's Chuck Baldwin) and consumer advocate Ralph Nader (independent). I think questions acknowledging them and their supporters' second choices would make sense.

I'd be particularly interested in "second choice polling" in two key statewide rades:

* In Vermont's governor race, incumbent Republican Jim Douglas is running against Democratic House speaker Gaye Symington and progressive independent Anthony Pollina. At least one recent poll showed all three candidates above 20% of the vote -- Douglas at 45%, Pollina at 25% and Symington at 20%.

What makes Vermont particularly interesting is that the framers of its state constitution established the majority principle as fundamental. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the legislature picks the winner - and it has a history of not simply electing the plurality winner, as quite consistent with the vision of the state framers. Indeed, in this case, if Gov. Douglas falls below 45%, fully 55% of voters will have rejected his leadership in favor of candidates who are clearly to his left. A second choice poll could reveal who voters prefer for governor -- and the legislature certainly should factor their intent into their potential decision in January. Certainly voters are familiar with the concept -- voters in the state's largest city (Burlington) use instant runoff voting for mayor, and the legislature this year approved it for congressional elections.

* In Minnesota's U.S. Senate race, incumbent Republican Norm Coleman is running against Democrat Al Franken, the comedian and talk show host, with ndependence Party candidate Dean Barkley running very well. Polls regularly show Barkley receiving nearly 20% of the vote., with the rest closely split between Coleman and Franken.

In a state where instant runoff voting has won overwhelming approval by Minneapolis voters for its 2009 elections and gained the endorsement of a wide range of state leaders, it would make great sense to find out how IRV might work in the election -- and to learn which candidates are likely to gain or lose if Barkley's vote share increases or decreases.

Pollsters often ask more creative questions during presidential primaries with big fields, including second choice polling, but they have been generally resistant to learning more about what voters think in general elections. Let's hope a few realize they could gain some attention -- and more information for all of us -- with a simple additional question: "and who would be your second choice"?