Instant runoff would be great for elections, not just polling

Princeton professor Sam Wang has a solid argument in The New Republic today arguing that Donald Trump’s standing in Republican primary polling is likely far overstated. While Trump is doing well in simple horserace polls, his high unfavorable ratings and low ratio of secondary support (he’s either voters’ first or last choice) mean that he is likely to flame out a la Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich did in 2012.

Wang’s analysis is more an indictment of the polling industry than it is of Trump. While pollsters have recently begun asking voters who their second choice is with more frequency, they still heavily rely on respondents’ first choice when reporting candidates’ levels of support. Especially in a crowded primary — the Republican field will approach 20 candidates this cycle — with a large number of candidates who are certain to drop out long before the party’s convention, pollsters who only report the percentage of voters listing each candidate as their first choice are saying very little about which candidates are actually in the best position to win the nomination.

Wang’s proposed solution, instant runoff polling, would ask poll respondents to rank all of the candidates from first to last. The candidate who receives the least first-choice responses (looking at you, George Pataki), could then have their votes reallocated to their respondents’ second choices, with the process repeated until a clear top tier of candidates emerges. Not only is this a more nuanced snapshot of the electorate, it allows pollsters to measure both the most liked and disliked candidates in the field, along with who the true frontrunners are once minor candidates are removed from consideration.

Using estimates based on unfavorable ratings and proportion of second choice responses, Wang argues that Trump would almost certainly perform poorly if current primary polling were conducted on an instant runoff basis. Despite appearing first in multiple national and state-level polls, his support is shallow; he has the lowest proportion of respondents naming him as their second choice. Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush, in contrast, have far higher ceilings of support, suggesting that as the lower-tier candidates drop off, they and not Trump will rise in the polls.

Especially with the current massive Republican field, instant-runoff polling would be difficult to conduct over the phone — imagine a recorded voice directing you to rank 17 candidates in order of preference. However, this kind of polling would be easy to do online. As a series of methodological hurdles, such as declining contact rates and the oversampling of land lines, have begun to shift polling away from phones and onto the Internet, online polling firms like YouGov are perfectly capable of conducting polls in this manner starting almost immediately.

While Wang’s proposal for changing how we conduct our primary polls would make for some more intelligent campaign coverage, the argument in favor of instant-runoff polling can also be made in favor of conducting instant-runoff elections.

The principle is the same: simply tallying first-choice responses isn’t an accurate indicator of how much support a candidate has. Furthermore, gauging voters’ dislike for a candidate is nearly or as important as gauging voters’ support for them.

In American-style elections, in which the candidate who gets the most votes wins outright, a significant subset of the electorate votes strategically; they may select their second or even third choice candidate in order to prevent their last choice candidate from winning. This is especially true in primary elections, in which a candidate’s “electability” in the general election is often one of their chief justifications for why voters should support them in the primary.

Donald Trump, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Donald Trump, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Case in point, one of Jeb Bush’s support hinges on mainline Republicans’ knowledge that he is the party’s best shot at winning the general election, even if they aren’t convinced that he’s a true conservative believer. This will lead to many Republicans who would otherwise prefer Scott Walker to vote for Bush, despite Walker’s strenuous appeals highlighting the fact that he’s been able to push a conservative agenda through a blue state and be reelected. Throughout the entire process, the goal is clear: nominate someone who can beat Hillary Clinton; i.e. not Donald Trump.

Currently, the only option available for voters wishing to punish the candidate they like the least is to vote strategically; the aforementioned Republicans are casting their ballots for Bush, but they’re really voting against Trump, and neither of those facts reflect their true preference. With instant runoff voting, those same voters can rank the candidate they align with most closely as their first choice, using their down-ballot rankings to strategically punish the candidates they find objectionable.

This allows voters to vote both for their favorite and against their least-favorite candidate. For a party seeking to nominate a unifying consensus candidate — desirable when seeking to win 50%+1 of the general electorate — registering voters’ disapproval along with their approval is useful.

In general elections, instant runoff voting would also open the door for third party candidates to register higher levels of support, as the incentives for strategic voting are even stronger there than they are in primaries. With ranked choice voting, everyone who supports the Green, Socialist, Libertarian and Rent is Too Damn High parties can rank those parties as their first choice, while their ballots can count against the major party that they’d rather not see win the election. This would allow us to more accurately assess exactly how much support our two major parties actually have, as opposed to how much of their support is simply derived from Duverger’s Law.

In a broader sense, allowing voters to record an opinion on every candidate in the race, as opposed to just one, produces a more accurate reflection of the general will. In our current system, the only voters who are truly represented are those whose first choice matches the election’s winner; everyone else’s representation is limited to the fact that they were granted the right to vote. But votes are often as much if not more about who the voters don’t like as who they do, so it makes sense to take that disapproval into account in determining how the public’s preferences are to be represented in government.

Taking it into account in our polling would be a good start.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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