Imagine this is the state of the Democratic primary: The field has been whittled down to just three candidates – former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Biden stands at 38% in national polling. Warren sits just behind him at 37.7%. Sanders holds the other 24.2%.
Well, that would be the situation Democrats faced today if the field were narrowed to just the top tier of candidates, according to a new poll conducted by FairVote and YouGov that asked Democrats to rank the entire field. A deadlocked convention, frustrated voters, a party divided against itself: It’s the stuff of bitter, blue tears, leaving no easy way out that satisfies anywhere close to a majority of Democrats.
National conventions are supposed to end lingering tensions and produce unity, as a party coalesces behind its nominee and charges into the final weeks of a presidential campaign with a common mission. That’s not likely to be the case if party insiders crown a nominee when more than 61% of primary voters favor a different candidate.
There is a solution. Ranked-choice voting (in at least some form) would allow Democrats to identify the consensus nominee, the candidate with the widest possible support and best chance to unify the party. It works just like an instant runoff. The candidate at the bottom -- in this case, Sanders -- would be eliminated. The race would be down to two. The Sanders votes would be reallocated based on each voter’s second choice. The winner would be the candidate that the greatest number of people could agree on. No one would have cast a spoiler or wasted vote. And the party could head into the general election knowing that its standard-bearer had broad support.
The FairVote/YouGov poll tells us what would happen in that case: Warren tops Biden, 53.4% to 46.6%. (Follow this link and you can create runoffs of your own with all of the candidates.) Maybe everyone wouldn’t leave the convention happy. But they would leave having been heard, and certain that the majority carried the day.
Polls are always just a snapshot. But this one suggests that in a field of some two dozen candidates, Warren is the one that most Democrats agree on.
Her favorability numbers are the highest. The Massachusetts senator is viewed as very or somewhat favorable by 74% of Democrats, compared to 69% for Biden and Sanders. Only 21% of Democrats left Warren out of their top 10, compared to 27% who did not rank Biden and 30.5% who passed on Sanders. Warren also wins head to head against every member of the field, including Biden and Sanders. When examining voters’ top three choices -- rather than just one -- she also does quite well with non-white voters and older voters more closely associated with Biden.
This isn’t to say that Elizabeth Warren ought to be the nominee. It’s September 2019. No one will cast an actual vote for more than four months. The presidential campaign is long and fluid.
However, it is to say that our electoral system -- both voting itself and the way we connect public opinion surveys -- has been overwhelmed by the new reality of a massive field of candidates seeking the White House. This may well be a permanent feature of our presidential elections. There were 17 Republican hopefuls in 2016. It’s easy to imagine an equally large GOP field in 2024 trying to plot the party’s course after Donald Trump. We need a voting mechanism that is up to this challenge, and our “single choice” system -- creating plurality winners that only exacerbate polarization -- is no longer up to the task. Neither are polls that tell us who leads a national horse race and not the more sophisticated feelings of voters facing an unprecedented field.
The good news is that a growing number of Americans have embraced RCV. Maine already uses it in its state and federal elections, and will add it for picking presidential electors in 2020 as well. As many as six Democratic primaries and caucuses will be conducted with a ranked-choice ballot. New York City voters appear likely to adopt it via a charter revision this fall as well, joining San Francisco, Minneapolis and Oakland as cities with RCV.
Ranked-choice voting also would have altered the trajectory of the 2016 Republican nomination contest. Donald Trump, after all, solidified himself as the GOP front-runner despite failing to win a state primary or caucus with more than 50% of the vote for almost the first three months of the race. To be sure, he is the president, but he almost certainly was not the Republican Party’s strongest, most unifying nominee.
Most polls done before well into the primaries showed him losing head-to-head against his strongest opponents. When FairVote conducted a similar ranked-choice YouGov poll in 2016, Trump’s support revealed itself as both strong and narrow: Trump had more first-place votes than any candidate, but also more last-place votes. If Republicans had been able to use RCV, rather than dividing support between Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Trump might have lost as many as nine of the 11 Super Tuesday battlegrounds. Polls simulating head-to-head races showed exactly that. The entire 2016 race might have ended quite differently.
Voting systems matter. Ours needs reform. RCV isn’t weighted toward any candidate or either party. It simply helps avoid a plurality winner chosen by the few from overwhelming the wishes of everyone else. A ranked choice is a better choice. After all, the most memorable and galvanizing moment of the 2016 Democratic National Convention was an unexpected one: The comedian Sarah Silverman, heckled and drowned out by bitter supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders as she urged unity, ultimately lecturing “Bernie-or-busters” that “you’re being ridiculous.”
It was good TV, but bad for healthy politics. Those divisions still reverberate. Biden, Sanders or Warren is one choice. It’s just not enough. Putting those three in order, an easy choice, might make the difference between an election that brings voters together and one that deepens divides that simply must be healed.
David Daley is a senior fellow for FairVote, the author of "Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count."