How Ranked Choice Voting Can Solve The Challenge Of Crowded Primary Fields

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The rise of social media, better technology, and data-driven campaigning (combined with major changes in campaign finance) means primary election fields are more crowded than ever. Between 2000 and 2018, the number of primaries at the federal level with three or more candidates tripled. 

During the 2022 primary election season, key Senate nominees were chosen with less than 40% support in multi-candidate fields. Ranked choice voting (RCV), also known as instant runoff voting, is one reform that would ensure a party’s nominee earns majority support from voters.

Republicans in Virginia have been using RCV in party-run nominating contests since 2020 due to COVID-era restrictions on in-person gatherings. Some observers even credit the party’s use of RCV to nominate Glenn Youngkin as a contributing factor to the first statewide GOP win in more than a decade.

A pair of congressional nominating contests in Virginia this year offered a unique opportunity to test the impact RCV has on primary campaigns. Virginia’s 7th and 10th congressional districts neighbor each other in suburban and exurban Northern Virginia, even splitting a large county. The 7th District nominated Yesli Vega using a state-run primary which she won with 29% of the vote in a 6-way contest. Hung Cao won the nomination in the 10th District’s party-administered RCV firehouse primary earning 52% of the vote.

The Center polled GOP primary voters in each district immediately after the elections and we learned three key findings:

  1. RCV led to a more positive campaign.
  2. RCV produced a better-positioned nominee.
  3. RCV also boosted runners-up

A More Positive Campaign

In the 10th Congressional District, 84% of voters described the campaign as positive compared to just 59% in the 7th Congressional District. Two-thirds of voters in the 10th rated the candidates as having run a mostly positive campaign, with an additional 18% saying the race was somewhat positive.  

The difference in perception of the quality of the candidates’ campaigns was even more pronounced when comparing soft Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Only 42% of these more moderate voters said the candidates in the 7th District ran positive campaigns compared to 86% of soft GOPers/Inds/Dems in CD-10.

A Better-Positioned Nominee

Because the nomination contest in the 10th Congressional District was considered more positive than in the 7th, Hung Cao, the Republican nominee chosen via RCV, emerged with 86% favorability among voters. In the 7th, Yesli Vega’s favorability among primary voters was just 64%. 

Building A Bench Of Candidates

By removing incentives to attack candidates, the RCV firehouse primary in the 10th District also benefited those candidates who did not win. Jeanine Lawson, who finished second behind Cao, had a +59% net favorability. Brandon Michon, the third place finisher, had +54% net image. 

This is an important asset to the Republican Party of Virginia because Lawson serves on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and may seek re-election in 2023. 

Contrast this with images of the runners up in the 7th District. State Senator Bryce Reeves, considered the frontrunner for much of the contest, finished with the highest unfavorability rating we measured at 27%. While he still has a net +25% positive image, Reeves faces a contested primary to retain the newly redrawn senate district next year. 

Additional Takeaways

  • Republican Primary Voters Prefer RCV. In the 10th District, 56% of voters reported preferring RCV to a single choice with one in three strongly preferring the method.
  • RCV Did Not Affect Electoral Outcomes. In the 10th Hung Cao led the field on the first ballot with 42%. He added to his majority over each round by collecting second, third, fourth, and fifth choice preferences from voters. All things being equal, in a plurality contest, Cao would have also become the nominee. In the 7th District, respondents in the survey were asked to rank their preferences among the candidates. In this simulated RCV contest, Vega still emerged as the consensus choice for voters.
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