Measuring Trump’s Support

So some Republican Beltway folk are going to issue a shrill aaaiiyeeeee! with their morning coffee today upon reading about a new WaPo/ABC poll showing Donald Trump vaulting into a very clear first place in the GOP presidential contest, holding 24% as opposed to Scott Walker at 13% and Jeb Bush at 12%. The silver lining comes pretty quickly, though:

Businessman Donald Trump surged into the lead for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, with almost twice the support of his closest rival, just as he ignited a new controversy after making disparaging remarks about Sen. John McCain’s Vietnam War service, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Support for Trump fell sharply on the one night that voters were surveyed following those comments. Telephone interviewing for the poll began Thursday, and most calls were completed before the news about the remarks was widely reported.

Although the sample size for the final day was small, the decline was statistically significant.

So whether or not hard-core Trump fans (more or less defined by Nate Silver yesterday as a combination of low-information, I-hate-everything, and unserious-protest voters) are undisturbed by Trump’s dissing of McCain and/or the massive repudiation he’s getting from every corner of the GOP, there’s at least some evidence that his levels of support have already peaked and may be entering a period of decline.

But as Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium points out over at TNR, a more accurate measurement of Trump’s position in the field would eliminate most of the heartburn over his candidacy. Single-choice horse-race polls are designed to exaggerate the potential of marginal candidates with high unfavorables in a very large field, which perfectly describes Trump ’16.

There’s a way to clarify this mess immediately—an innovative technique that would determine who the true frontrunners are, and perhaps even save the GOP debates from becoming a chaotic circus or a ten-part infomercial.

The technique is called instant runoff, and here’s how it works: Ask respondents to rank all of the candidates, from most preferred to least. Pollsters then eliminate the candidate receiving the fewest first votes, and the loser’s supporters are reassigned to their next choice. This process is repeated until there is only one winner left. For example, in a three-way race, supporters of the third-place finisher would have their votes reassigned to the other two candidates.

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. At Princeton University, where I teach, faculty members often face ballots with over a dozen candidates for university-wide committees. We use instant-runoff voting to elect the most acceptable—and also least-objectionable—candidate.

Instant runoff polling would pretty quickly expose Trump’s weaknesses as a candidate with too much intra-party hostility to represent any real threat of ultimate victory. The WaPo/ABC poll, for example, shows a majority of Republicans saying Trump does not reflect the “core values” of their party, and nearly a third saying they wouldn’t even consider voting for Trump in November 2016 if he does get the nomination.

IMHO, this is another example of an answer to those who throw up their hands at disturbing headlines like “Trump Surges Into the Lead!” and advocate ignoring all polls until such time as they provide less unsettling results. What we need is not less information, but more and better information.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.