Ranked-Choice Means Primary Polling Is Even Less Reliable

Jun 8, 2018

Polling in primary elections has always been difficult, due to typically-low voter turnout. But experts say it is even more arduous when voters are surveyed about their preferences under the new ranked-choice voting law.

Eight years ago, polls showed that Paul LePage was fourth out of seven republican candidates in the race for governor. He then won the primary with more than 37 percent of the vote. At that time, there were over 275,000 registered republicans in Maine, but fewer than half participated in the primary election. Even fewer democrats voted in their primary for governor that year.

Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, says polling in general is becoming more difficult.

“Polling has gotten a lot harder over the last twenty to thirty years,” Brewer says. “Cell phones have caused a huge problem, unwillingness of people increasingly to give information to pollsters has caused a problem.”

Brewer says that in primary elections it is difficult to get the right balance between cell phone calls and landline calls, and it is difficult to capture a sample that reflects the demographic makeup of the group being polled. He says just getting a good sample of democrats in the second congressional district is not enough. Instead, he suggests, it should be a sample of democrats who are likely to vote or have already voted absentee.

Bowdoin College government professor Mike Franz teaches a course on polling.

“In a primary election, it is very challenging to get a good response rate from people that have informed, currently informed information or updated information on their “likely-vote” in the primary.”

To do that, Franz says pollsters have to make more calls to get an adequate sample size, and that means incurring a higher cost. Campaigns are spending a lot of money on polling to get a sense of what issues are resonating with voters and whether a particular TV ad is working. But it is harder to follow what polls might be saying under the ranked-choice voting system.

University of Southern Maine political science professor Ron Schmidt says polls try to capture a snapshot in time of what voters are thinking.

“These snapshots, given the newness of ranked-choice voting and the issues with primaries anyway, are probably pretty fuzzy,” Schmidt says.

U-Maine’s Brewer points to the seven-way democratic gubernatorial primary, and questions how a pollster could accurately assess a person’s ranked choices over the phone.

“They can tell you the first choice and maybe the second, but then as you start to go down the list …they probably haven’t given a lot of thought to much,” he says. “Even if they have given thought to one and two, which isn’t a given, I don’t know they have given much thought to anything after that.”

Bowdoin’s Franz says people often change their mind about who they’ll support on election day, based on the newest information they have received.

“Choices might be fairly fluid,” says Franz. “They might be based on very little information. They could be very subject to change. How I rank someone from two or three or four might change day-to-day based on what I am hearing.”

all of the experts interviewed for this story agree that any polling results for this primary election could be affected by the significant difficulties pollsters have in getting a truly representative sample.