Understanding progressives' presidential picks

by Jack Santucci // Published June 26, 2007
Part two in our analysis of IRV exit poll results from Take Back America 2007. For more posts on the conference, click here.

We've crunched the numbers (warning - Excel file 61kb) from our 2007 Take Back America straw poll. FairVote has run such instant runoff polls - or "second choice" as they've come to be known - at TBA since 2003. This year Politico.com joined in with a second choice poll of its own:

The poll establishes Obama and Edwards as a two-man top tier among the liberal segment of the Democratic base, said pollster Stan Greenberg, because they were also the most popular second choices for the nomination.

"If you look at this, you see Obama's [supporters'] second choice and Edwards [supporters'] second choice are each other -- in this group, the two of them form the top tier."

Those results may indicate that a majority of the activists surveyed are looking for a choice other than Clinton.

In general, our results and conclusions mirror Politico's - Obama won the instant runoff - but there are some key differences:

1) We included Gore on our ballot.

2) We asked voters to rank beyond their second choice, which allows for, one, deeper examination of breadth of candidate support and, two, fuller speculation on whom the supporters of X vote for when X isn't in the race.

3) At least among this sample (admittedly not the most representative of Democrats), there is no clear frontrunner. Progressives are divided.

No clear frontrunner

The progressive landscape has changed quite a bit from 2003 when Dean was a clear leader in both first (42%) and total second choices (27%).

For Greenberg, Obama and Edwards make up the top tier of the field, based on results from TBA. This, he says, is because supporters of each overwhelmingly list the other as their second choice.

While we did find a 43% plurality of Obama supporters ranking Edwards second, there was no definitive leader for second-choice support among Edwards voters. Among Edwards supporters, Hillary Clinton picks up the most second choices (but only 27%).

Where Edwards really picks up support is among Gore voters, capturing 44% of their second choices.

As far as first choices go, there is no overwhelming leader. Gore and Obama lead the field with support in the 20-point range, while Kucinich and Edwards follow with support in the teens.

Hillary's shallow roots

For all the buzz about Hillary Clinton (various writings on various walls and the near-certain first woman President) the results of this poll tell a different story, at least among this small and left-leaning sample. Not only is the former First Lady light on core support, coming in fifth with only 12% of first choices, but she lacks breadth of support to an almost equivalent extent, coming in fourth with 15% of overall second choices. Gore beats her for third place in second choices, followed by Obama and Edwards respectively.

Thinking about "total support," or first choices plus second choices (a "Bucklin index," if you will) Hillary (with 18) again comes in fourth, well behind Obama (with 28), Gore (with 27) and Edwards (with 26).

The world without Gore

IRV polling also lets us simulate what would have been in the absence of any candidate. This is especially useful here because Politico did not include Gore on its ballot while we at FairVote did.

First-choice standings were as follows:

Biden: 2 Clinton: 8 Dodd: 1 Edwards: 11 Gore: 16 Kucinich: 10 Obama: 14 Richardson: 3 Feingold (on write-in): 1

Assuming 'IRV logic' and 'second-choice poll logic' are strategically equivalent in voters' minds (I speculate on that a bit here), we can redistribute Gore's ballots to those voters' second choices for a breakdown of:

Biden: 2 Clinton: 8 +4 = 12 Dodd: 1 Edwards: 11 +7 = 17 Kucinich: 10 +1 = 11 Obama: 14 +3 = 17 Richardson: 3 +1 = 4 Feingold (on write-in): 1

In a world without Al Gore, Edwards is the consensus candidate, picking up 7 additional 'breadth' votes. In this scenario, Edwards ties with Obama, who picks up just three votes from Gore supporters. Despite picking up 4 more votes, Clinton still lags 5 votes behind either Edwards or Obama. And Edwards and Obama tie.

The value of IRV polling

Second choice polls seem to be the new thing. National Journal's Hotline was running them as early as last May, and now the Politico asks for subsequent choices at major conferences like TBA. Two DailyKos polls asked readers for their second choices (April 2007 and June 2007), and the Des Moines Register ran a second choice poll this May, though it didn't report the results. At the very least, ranked poll reporting should come with tables providing distributions of second choice support.

Overall, though, IRV polls have value over second choice polls because they let one take the analysis further. Many candidates enter; one (wo)man leaves. As the field narrows, knowing about voters' third, fourth, fifth choices (and so on) lets us better gauge where consensus is likely to fall.

And next-choice polls in general have value for politicans and prognosticators alike. This post is itself crude prognostication. What politicians can learn from ranked polling, however, is which opponent's base to court as primary day looms.