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Marco Rubio’s chances were always poor

Ranked choice voting could have told us this sooner

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

A new poll has Donald Trump beating Marco Rubio 44 percent to 28 percent in Rubio's home state of Florida. This is devastating news for Rubio. It also is bad news for the conventional wisdom that Rubio would pick up support as the field winnowed, allowing him to overcome Trump.

But had the GOP used ranked-choice voting in its primaries, this new Florida poll wouldn't have been that surprising. We'd have known by now that Rubio's chances were always poor, and that winnowing wouldn't vault him to the top of the field.

Look closely at the results of this survey done by the College of William and Mary and FairVote, which asked Republican voters to rank the candidates in order of preference a few weeks ago, when there were more candidates. Rubio's support was never all that deep.

Below is a key table (with my highlighting), but there's a lot more in the report.

("The 2016 Presidential Election and Electoral Reform," FairVote, p. 7)

Note that while Rubio is indeed the most common second choice for Jeb Bush and Chris Christie supporters, a surprisingly high number of Bush and Christie supporters name Trump their second choice (14 percent and 12 percent, respectively). The "establishment lane" may not have had such clear boundaries after all. Sadly for Rubio, it was a John Kasich dropout he needed most, since Kasich supporters look to have had the clearest preference for Rubio over Trump.

Note also that if we are really down to just Rubio and Cruz as the only viable alternatives against Trump, it looks like Rubio dropping out would help Cruz far more than Cruz dropping out would help Rubio.

That's because while almost a third of Cruz supporters (30.7 percent) would pick Trump as their second choice, only 7.9 percent of Rubio supporters feel the same way. By contrast, more Rubio supporters named Cruz as their second choice (34.7 percent) than Cruz supporters named Rubio as their second choice (27.2 percent)

FairVote also worked out the whole ranked-choice simulation process, in which the worst-performing candidate is eliminated in each round, transferring his votes to existing candidates, and so on, until there are only two candidates left standing.  At the end of this process, Cruz narrowly beat Trump, 50.7 percent to 49.3.

Two conclusions about what pundits got wrong

The first conclusion is that while Rubio's support is narrower than most thought, Cruz's support is wider.

Reading the commentary and analysis around this election, I would have expected Rubio to pull away in a ranked-choice voting process. But by the eighth round of the automatic ranked-choice voting simulation (with the lowest-performing candidate dropping out at the end of each round and voters transferring their support to the still-standing candidate they ranked highest), Rubio was still third, at 25 percent, to Cruz's 32 percent and Trump's 43 percent. And since Rubio supporters decidedly preferred Cruz to Trump, Cruz was the winner.

The second conclusion is that had the Republicans run their primaries using ranked-choice voting, everybody would have had a better understanding of where things stood. For months, the narrative has been that the party had better figure it out and decide on one of the establishment candidates so that establishment candidate could win.

Looking at this data makes me doubt whether this conventional wisdom was right. The so-called "establishment wing" of the Republican Party may be in even weaker shape and far fuzzier than most pundits tend to think. Many establishment candidate supporters were also interested in Trump and Cruz as their second choices.

What if the GOP had used ranked-choice voting?

How would the Republican primary have played out differently if the GOP had used a system of ranked-choice voting, allowing voters to rank all the candidates in order?

My guess is that the establishment candidates would have spent more time taking on Trump and less time attacking each other. In ranked-choice voting, all candidates are not only competing to be the voters' top choice but are also competing to be the voters' second and third choice. So rather than Rubio and Bush trying to take each other down, they would have had far more incentive to both say something like, Vote for one us, but whatever you do, don't vote for Trump — and then let their surrogate Super PACs act on it, going after Trump instead of each other.

After this election, GOP leaders will almost certainly be doing some deep thinking about how they run their primary process. They ought to put ranked-choice voting on the table. They would get fewer unpleasant surprises that way.

The good news from the FairVote survey is that Republican voters like ranked choice voting — 57 percent say the GOP should indeed use it in its primaries.