What Should Republicans Do To Improve Candidate Quality?

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In the wake of disappointing midterm results, some Republicans point to poor “candidate quality” as a contributing factor for underperformance. Notably, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said that “we ended up having a candidate quality test” in key Senate battlegrounds.

Indeed, our post-election polling offers some insight into the impact of perceived candidate quality. In Pennsylvania, we found that 45% of voters who cast their ballot for Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, were doing so as a vote for the candidate, compared to 40% who said it was a vote against Democrat John Fetterman. Two-thirds (67%) of Fetterman voters, meanwhile, said their vote was for him compared to just 20% who said it was a vote against Oz.  

When voters were asked about key candidate attributes, Fetterman scored significantly higher with registered Democrats than Oz did with Republicans.

Our polling in congressional battlegrounds found a similar pattern regarding voters’ motivations. Just 52% of voters casting ballots for Republican candidates did so as a vote for the candidate, compared to 69% of voters supporting Democrats saying their vote was for the candidate. Republican supporters were nearly twice as likely (32%) to be voting against the Democrat as Democrats were (17%) to be voting against the Republican.

The prevalence of competitive and contentious primaries for Republicans is one likely cause for this deficit. Most Democrats running in battleground races either had the advantage of incumbency, a cleared field, or token opposition. Republicans, by contrast, faced crowded primaries with several well-resourced campaigns and intense media scrutiny regarding former President Donald Trump’s endorsements in key races. For example, Oz won a seven-way GOP primary with under one-third of the vote, winning by just 950 votes out of more than 1.3 million votes cast.

When it comes to the challenge of resolving primaries, perhaps the most transparent and equitable solution is a shift to instant runoff voting, where a party’s supporters rank their choices for nominee. This helps nominate a consensus candidate who represents a majority of voters and unifies the party, without  the need for party insiders to “clear” primary fields – which reduces grassroots input in candidate selection.

Last year, we surveyed Republican primary voters in Virginia’s 10th and 7th Congressional Districts to better understand the impacts of ranked choice voting in primaries. The data showed that voters experienced a more positive campaign in the ranked choice voting contest, which led to better awareness and favorability of the ultimate nominee. This provided a significant advantage over the candidate nominated with a plurality system who had to spend time and resources reuniting the party’s base. Notably, Hung Cao, the nominee in the ranked choice voting contest, outperformed expectations. Though he ultimately lost in a blue-leaning seat, he is seen as a rising star and potential US Senate candidate in 2024. 

Another recent poll of Virginia Republicans found that 52% would support a ranked choice voting primary for the 2024 presidential primaries, a proposal considered by party leaders and elected officials across the country. 

For conservatives seeking to address the challenge of improving candidate quality in nomination contests, instant runoff voting in primaries offers an evidence-based solution that offers high-resolution input from voters, positions the ultimate nominee for maximum success, and eliminates the need to “clear fields” by party insiders.

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