Second Choices Mean a Second Chance to Determine Real GOP Frontrunner

by Rob Richie, Molly Rockett // Published July 25, 2015

Right alongside the weather of late July, the Republican contest for president is heating up. Every day, new GOP primary poll results are published, yet none have managed to pin down the true leading candidate in a crowded field. With a ranked choice voting poll, however, we'd have a better chance -- and at least one new poll is getting close.

Many polls only let voters pick one candidate. In a contest with more than two choices, let alone 17, analysts like Princeton's Sam Wang argue thavote-for-one polls give too little information. Any two similar candidates may split their support, making it difficult to see that connection when voters must choose one or the other. When the field has become so fractured that a candidate with only 15% of first-choice support is deemed a “front-runner,” it’s time to rethink how we conduct polls. Winning a small percentage of loyal followers does not indicate a majority of support among Republican voters nor help tell us just where the race may go in the months ahead.

Ranked Choice Polling Leads to More Insights

A growing number of polls give voters the chance to indicate a second choice, but typically report those numbers simplistically by lumping those second choices in with the first choices, again making it very difficult to see where the coalitions are and to compare frontrunners in a straight-up manner.

A true ranked choice poll would allow voters to rank all the candidates in order of preference, and offers a better profile of which candidate truly has the broadest base of support by demonstrating how support changes when a candidate is taken out of the process. In late 2014, the group Democracy for America demonstrated how this could work among rumored Democratic candidates for president.

Ranked choice voting can be easily introduced into our current polling structure. Wang recommends RCV polling as the best means of selecting candidates for the first Republican debate, and AMERICAblog Editor in Chief Jon Green notes the ease of conducting such a poll online. In fact, next month FairVote will release our own mobile app for conducting any election with ranked choice voting, starting with the Republican and Democratic presidential contests.

PPP Survey Shows Walker Popular Second Choice

No one has conducted a true RCV poll of Republican voters. However, new data out this week in a national poll by Public Policy Polling (PPP) reveals the valuable insights that can be gleaned, solely from capturing voters’ second choices and charting the full distribution of those choices. PPP asked voters for their second choices and presented a full breakdown of how voters for one candidate tended to favor others as second choices. (See chart at the end of this blog.)

With these results, Public Policy Polling provides a wealth of new insight. For example, Scott Walker is not only second in first choice support, but is most popular second-choice option for supporters of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, and Ben Carson - and a close second among backers of Marco Rubio. If any of these candidates drop in support, Walker would likely benefit from an influx of their supporters.

Interestingly, supporters of fellow frontrunner Jeb Bush showed very little interest in Walker as a second choice -- a meager 2% of Bush supporters listed Walker second. Other tidbits include:

  • a surprising 23% of Rick Perry supporters list Trump as their second choice despite Perry's attacks on Trump; 
  • only 11% of Jeb Bush supporters list Marco Rubio second, but 28% of Rubio supporters back Bush second;
  • backers of Donald Trump and Scott Walker each list the other candidate as their top second choice.

Walker Beats Trump, Bush One-on-One

Despite the fact that Trump’s 19% of first-choice support puts him two percentage points ahead of Walker, Walker’s wider appeal among second choice voters suggests that he has greater room to increase his support in the months ahead. Using PPP’s data, we tested what would be the likely result right now if the only candidates were Trump and Walker. That is, we eliminate all the remaining candidates, and add their second choices to Trump or Walker  when one of those candidate was listed as a second choice. These "instant runoff" results are far from perfect, because the poll only allowed voters to indicate a second choice and one in five don't indicate a second choice. However, the results provide more information than you get by just asking for first choices or only reporting aggregate first and second choices.

Once we eliminate all other candidates in this simplified form of ranked choice voting and add their ballots to the to the totals of Trump and Walker based on who is ranked second, Walker moves ahead of Trump 27% to 24% in the instant runoff. That would be about 54% to 46% in a two-person race, with that margin likely to widen if the remaining 49% of GOP voters had been able to pick between Walker and Trump.

Walker has an even bigger lead over Bush when matched one-on-one. His lead is 29% to 21% among all respondents, or about 58% to 42% in a two-candidate race. His two-candidate "instant runoff" percentage lead is slightly larger against Ben Carson and greater than 60% to 40% against all others in the field. 

Democratic Respondents Unsure on Second Choice 

Public Policy Polling also provided this information for the Democrats. Hillary Clinton is far ahead in first choices, 57% to 22% over Bernie Sanders. The PPP data shows that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both are also strong second-choice options among each other’s supporters. Fully 45% of Sanders supporters would choose Clinton second, far ahead of the other contenders -- suggesting that even those in the "not-quite-ready-for-Hillary" camp still see her relatively favorably. At the same time, 32% of Clinton supporters would choose Sanders second --  putting the independent Senator ahead of long-time Democrats, like Martin O'Malley.

However, the results also reveal that Democratic primary voters are putting less thought into their second-choices than Republican voters. Close to half of Democratic respondents were unsure of their second choice, as compared to only about a fifth of Republican respondents. Clearly, the Democratic field has yet to near the fractious pitch of the Republican contest.  

To really understand how voters weigh candidates on both sides, we must allow them to express their full preferences by ranking candidates. Until then, polls will only provide a partial picture. Let's hope more polls provide the information PPP has provided -- but go farther by asking respondents to rank more candidates and find tools to share the data to simulate more one-on-one matchups and full ranked choice tallies.

Source: Public Policy Polling