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Who Would Win The Democratic Nomination If It Was Based On Ranked Choice?

Polls looking at the Democratic Party’s primary candidates for president demonstrate that former Vice President Joe Biden is leading the pack, for the most part.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

A few outlier polls also show him tied in some circumstances, leading by slimmer margins in others, or even losing by small numbers in a few of them. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) are typically seen as taking second or third place within those polls, although sometimes Warren is seen leading Biden in a couple of them.

Still, most political observers believe it’s Biden’s race to lose at this point. A lot can change between now and the Iowa caucuses, of course, but if a hypothetical, nationwide primary election were to occur today, Biden would probably be the winner among Democratic voters…winning with a plurality, not a majority of votes.

What would the outcome be if there was ranked-choice voting? Such a system would probably yield different results, according to a new poll.

Ranked-choice voting (sometimes shortened to RCV) gives voters the chance to cast their ballots for the candidates they most prefer, without worry over potentially “wasting” their vote on a candidate who can’t win. It requires a majority victory for any candidate to claim a win.

How a candidate gets that majority is simple: the votes from the person who got last place in the initial round are removed from the total tallies, and those voters’ second choices are then given their votes, added to the main totals. The process repeats itself until a candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote.

This video from Minnesota Public Radio helps explain it visually:

It’s too late for such a system to be adopted by the states for next year’s primary and caucus events. But to demonstrate the change in outcome, FairVote, a government-reform nonprofit, teamed up with YouGov to conduct a special poll, to find out who would win in a RCV system.

FairVote/YouGov put forward two models to analyze — one in which only the top five candidates were considered, and one for 20 candidates. For simplicity, we’ll focus on the five-candidate version (although the eventual outcome in both models ends up being relatively the same, with the same winner chosen).

The top five candidates in the initial round of voting saw Biden with 33 percent of the vote; Warren with 29 percent; Sanders with 20 percent; Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) with 10 percent; and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 8 percent.

Removing Buttigieg’s voters’ initial choice from the poll led to new outcomes for the remaining four candidates, but not a majority. The same held true for when Harris was removed, and also required Sanders to be dropped, as a majority wasn’t attained with just three candidates either.

When the second, third, and in some cases the fourth choices of voters were considered, leaving just two candidates to choose from, there was a difference from the initial polling: while Biden won a clear plurality in the first round, it was Warren who had attained the majority between the two in the final round.

Warren wound up with 52.7 percent of the vote in the five-candidate model, while Biden had 47.3 percent, FairVote/YouGov found.

Ranked-choice voting isn’t going to be part of this year’s primary contests, but it has been picked up in many local governments, as well as within the state of Maine. In last November’s midterms, a congressional seat in that state resulted in the Democratic candidate winning, after the initial round of voting found the Republican had more votes, but not a majority, NPR reported.



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