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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19 Responses to “Instant runoff would be great for elections, not just polling”

  1. cateye says:

    Re: Trump. Yeah. Supposedly the RNC is looking for ways to get rid of Trump, so maybe if it reaches the right person AND Trump is as unpopular as some people believe he is it might be the solution. (The video starts around the 4:40 mark.)

    I went to fair vote’s site to see what they had to say about range voting. Basically they say that it susceptible to strategy games. So I thought about what people *might* do.

    Your original chart on is
    | 51% | X=99, Y=50, Z=0 |
    | 49% | Y=99, Z=10, X=0 |

    If say, the 51ers are honest and don’t really like Y, while the 49ers aren’t you might get
    | 51% | X=99, Y=10, Z=10 |
    | 49% | Y=99, Z=10, X=0 |

    Resulting in a win for Y with X = 50.49; Y = 53.61. Y supporters would be unhappy and I think rightfully so. (Assuming X supporters weren’t honest.)

    But if there are two major parties/candidates, it could be a bit of a hybrid of majority wins and help the smaller parties/candidates. People might give their preferred candidate of the big two 99 and their strongest ideological opponent 0 and give everyone else honest scores.

    Then *maybe* they would gradually either give the preferred candidate of the former strong parties less extreme/more honest votes and the other zero or gradually be more honest for both.

    And then of course there are the people that wouldn’t have voted, but now will because there is a better chance of winning.

    And even if there are clones in the same strong party that you more or less like equally you could give them all 99. Or slightly less – 99, 95, 90 etc depending on your *relative* preference.

    So yes it seems like it could help us leave a two-party system as people see the gap been the top two and other parties narrow and feel safer voting honestly. Is this a reasonable view of the range system?

  2. Warren Smith says:

    BIngo — yes we’d already considered that potential problem with Range Voting and that page indeed was the response. . Meanwhile I wrote these 2 more pages:

    1: analysis of Donald Trump and also of Sam Wang’s article:
    II: open letter to Roger AIles, can you recruit signers?

  3. cateye says:

    Ah. Just saw this page

  4. cateye says:

    Thanks for the post. A problem with range voting though seems to be that a fanatic/extremist with rabid fans that most people haven’t heard about could win. (If people are honest and vote X). I mean what if there were 135 candidates running like during the California Gubernatorial 2003 that that site mentioned?

  5. Warren Smith says:

    It is true that Trump’s success is likely an artifact of the plurality voting system
    and quite similar to the rise of Arnold Schwarzennegger, a fact I’d alredy pointed

    out on the rangevoting forum.

    But “Asking respondents to rank all 16 republican candidates from first to last” as Wang said, would be unlikely to work well, sorry! Indeed, in an exit poll study in France 2007 presidential election,
    with only 12, not 16 candidates, only 41% of their voters ranked all 12:

    Instant runoff voting has many problems, many of which are illustrated by simply working thru the simple election example here:
    A simpler and better voting system is Range Voting, aka Score Voting,

    Wang’s “Instant runoff isn’t theoretical: It’s used in voting around the world, from state and local elections in the U.S. to national elections in countries like India, Australia, and Ireland”
    is very deceptive: In India, it is used only by a certain electoral college, not the general public; in Ireland only for the almost-irrelevant presidential seat (comparable to the “surgeon general” in the USA, the real power is held by the PM); in state elections in USA, it is not, and never has been, used, except under unbelievably generous interpretations.

    in Australia it genuinely is in heavy and long use, to elect House, for about 80 years. But Australians by landslide poll margins wish it were not used! And generally, worldwide, voters given the choice overwhelmingly have preferred not having instant runoff voting, over having it:
    collects poll and referendum data clearly showing that.

    It is sad that Instant Runoff propagandists continually feel the need to resort to deception.
    If they proposed a better and more popular voting system like range voting, they would not need to.

    And indeed range and approval voting poll data is already available for many of the Republican
    (and Democratic) candidates, and it delivers quite differnt results from the plurality0-sttyke polls,
    thus proving the enrmous distortion of the latter. Indeed, as had already been reported on
    the rangevoting forum, Trump was recently in FIRST place with plurality voting, but in LAST place with approval voting. If you do not consider that a distortion caused by the plurality voting system,
    and one large enough to virtually render democracy, meaningless, then I don;t see what could possibly convince you.

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  7. Amoral Amusement says:

    No matter the election year, it’s the same slapstick comedy; no new plot or formula. The horror lies in knowing there’s no cancellation anytime soon; we enjoy watching the broadcast. Hope of a true election makes any heart flutter until the hilarity ensues.

  8. Maziever says:

    Super Media Work 698.77$/day


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  9. FairVote says:

    Great piece. Interestingly, major parties are holding instant runoff voting (or “ranked choice voting”)_ elections right now to pick leaders in the United Kingdom and Scotland, and did so recently in Canada (where all parties use it to pick leaders), Australia and New Zealand. Getting some use in party elections in the US too, like for some Republican elections in Utah and Democratic elections in Virginia. FairVote has information about such things at

  10. ora_tpellham says:


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  11. AlexanderHamiltonsGhost says:

    Why would you want to?

  12. Don Chandler says:

    I guess this McCain flap will test Trumps Teflon. I don’t think people know what to think about Trump yet. He makes the other candidates look so boring. edit: so like Walker can’t even take a stand on gays being born gay…this kind of politics is very very boring.

  13. MoonDragon says:

    It’s a function of the collapse of the news divisions into the entertainment divisions of the (or the total abandonment of news for entertainment (FAUX).) Same as doing the news from a central location (except for storms/natural disasters – good visuals and human interest) makes it cheaper and more profitable. Why go out and ask questions when an intern can sit and read Twitter and FB? And if that intern is unpaid, remember, his/her input is worth every penny he/she was paid to produce it.

  14. goulo says:

    As you note, Instant Runoff Voting is a little bit cumbersome (and for some people it is confusing) as it requires ranking the complete list of candidates). (And sometimes one might genuinely be unsure whether one prefers candidate X or Y.)

    A much simpler “user-friendly” method which I’ve seen advocated is Approval Voting, in which you simply state which of the candidates you would support: i.e. you can vote for multiple candidates. Whoever receives the most votes is the winner. Like IRV, AV also helps solve problems with voting which asks for only your favorite candidate, instead of using additional information about your preferences concerning the remaining candidates. There exist arguments that AV is even better than IRV. (Ultimately no election system is perfect, but will sometimes violate our expectations of how voting “should” work, as Kenneth Arrow proved…)

  15. Houndentenor says:

    They are few and mostly not American. That’s sad to say but true.

  16. Knottwhole says:

    “everybody in the news media”.
    Not true at all. There are great news outlets….and there are the so-called main news networks.
    Let’s not tear down all for what the few powerful ones have done poorly.

  17. Indigo says:

    That’s an excellent suggestion. Can anyone figure out a way to help the Republicans understand how to make that democratic process work for them?

  18. Houndentenor says:

    Actually there’s a bigger problem: the media’s insistence on covering all politics as a horserace with winners and losers rather than a debate about the issues. The primaries provide a good time for both parties to talk about their agenda for the next four years. Sometimes that happens. In spite of how poorly the media covered the Obama-Clinton race in 2008, I had great discussions with friends about what each was saying about various issues. Yes, personalities came into play and other nonsense, but mostly we discussed the issue. Republicans should be (and probably among themselves are) doing the same thing over the next 16 months. The question is why isn’t that how the “news” media covers these races. You’d think they were contestants on The Amazing Race instead of presidential candidates. Everyone involved in the news media these days should be ashamed.

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