If Bush Drops Out, or Carson Stumbles

Ben Carson now averages close to 20% in national polls… A lot of voters will be shopping for a new political champion if he falters. There’s no sign of that now, but no one is immune from the inevitable weeding out process in the GOP contest. The dataset collected by Civinomics.com allows us to consider things might play out if he left the race.

Carson supporters dominated the raw tally collected from the Civinomics straw poll. Most of the responses were given in August. Now the site displays results in a reweighted form, showing Trump in the lead. It’s an adjustment designed to reflect national public opinion standings. (Some of the AimsPoll analytics make similar adjustments, as explained here).

Nevertheless, it’s clear that a huge swarm of Carson voters ranked their preferences at the Civinomics site. That high turnout gives a clearer and sharper voice to the views of Carson supporters nationwide.

Both the raw and reweighted datasets indicate that Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz are by far the most popular 2nd and 3rd choices among Carson supporters. Each won about 50% of 2nd and 3rd ranks. Both would be likely to gain significantly if Carson left the race.


The methodology employed to build the chart shown here uses only those responses where all candidates were ranked. While the preferences may look nearly tied, it’s worth mentioning that Fiorina had a clear advantage over Cruz by around 5% in the raw tally.

Overall, Carson supporters are ambivalent about Donald Trump. He wins just under 20% of their 2nd and 3rd choice votes, but is soundly rejected by around 34% of them, who put him as their last choice.

Carson supporters are not ambivalent about Carson. Their relatively solid readiness to coalesce around similar alternatives could be taken as an indication that they have coalesced even more solidly around their first choice. Fiorina and Cruz may have a chance to win the voters over, as long as Carson decides to stay in the race. But they’ll have to work hard for it.

Carson supporters present a strong sense of what they want in a candidate… an aggressively cerebral economic and moralistic social conservative who is clearly not already one of the establishment bums he or she promises to throw out. Trump may also be a clear outsider like Carson and Fiorina, but few would consider his appeal cerebral or moralistic.

* * *

Though a relatively small contingent of Jeb Bush voters responded to the Civinomics straw poll, enough showed up to sketch a map of where his support has been going… and where the remainder of it might end up.


It appears that Kasich and Rubio are best positioned to pick off Bush supporters. It’s no surpirse that his drop in the polls has correlated with Rubio’s rise. It’s also quite evident from this chart that potential Bush defectors have no taste for Trump.

If Bush wants to recover his supporters and perhaps even gain some, he’ll have to compete more effectively against those candidates who have been most successful at gathering up defectors. One expects that stopping Trump might be a common priority for all of those voters, presumably for the sake of making sure the Republicans beat the Democrats in the general election. This offers a sense of how many voters within the GOP still prefer not-too-brash mainstream politicians who are relatively close to the GOP’s establishment.

* * *

This series has been using a dataset collected by Civinomics.com to prototype some examples of ranked choice public opinion research analytics. Read here and here for background methodology. More advanced Instant Runoff and Condorcet visualizations and will be presented as time and resources permit, hopefully with a fresh datasets.

For more about Sygnol Analytics and ranked choice data visualizations, follow Sygnol on YouTube.


Scott Walker Leaves the Ranks

Scott Walker’s departure from the crowded GOP race probably won’t have much impact on candidate standings. His support had fallen to 5% or so before he dropped out on September 21. There weren’t many supporters left to spread around.

But every edge counts. It’s reasonable to ask who might benefit from his withdrawal and whether ranked choice polling can offer any insights.

Walker downballot ranks

Of those respondents who ranked all candidates, and who ranked Scott Walker as their 1st choice, these are their 2nd through 17th choices.

Several pundits have speculated that Marco Rubio is most likely to gain. In fact, Walker had spoken publicly about Rubio as his VP choice. However, in light of the ranked choice dataset collected by Civinomics (mostly during mid and late August), it appears that his supporters are unlikely to coalesce around a common alternative. And despite the pundits, Rubio apparently isn’t their top choice. The weighted results page at Civinomics points to Donald Trump as the biggest gainer.

The results displayed here are somewhat different. They use the same source data from Civinomics, but rely on a subset filtered on respondents who ranked all seventeen candidates. The assumption is that by demonstrating more awareness of the whole field they are more likely to be better informed about the race. They are better positioned to influence persuadable peers as the race shakes out. More about the rationale and technique for that methodology is described here.

Suffice it to say that Jeb Bush and Rand Paul drew competitive shares of those Walker supporters, followed by Trump and Rubio.

Still, Trump displayed robust depth of support — and therefore strong acceptability — among former Walker supporters. He pulled the highest combination of their second and third place preferences. This suggests the extent to which Trump’s mid-summer surge came at Walker’s expense.

The source data has to be taken with a grain of salt, of course, given the shortcomings and poorly understood novelties associated with this kind of online poll. Nevertheless, if this methodology can offer any hypothesis worth exploring, it’s insight into Walker’s base… or lack thereof.

Something that jumps out from the chart is what doesn’t jump out… Consider how few of Walker’s supporters chose outspoken reigious conservatives — namely Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum, or Jindal — as their second, third, or even fourth choice. Those candidates appeal to a highly motivated part of the traditional Republican base. It was a population Walker strongly courted when, as an early frontrunner, he had positioned himself as the consensus conservative best suited to challenge Jeb Bush. Yet very few of the respondents who ranked him first moved to another candidate in that cohort. Cruz clearly fared best, but still trailed Bush, Paul, Trump, and Rubio by a distinct margin.

The upshot is that Walker failed to win much depth of support among social conservatives in the first place.


Ranked Choice Polling for the 2016 GOP Presidential Campaign

Just as ranked choice voting offers a better way to run multi-candidate elections, it promises a boon to public opinion research. Here’s a demonstration of how data collected by a recent online ranked choice survey could have been used to anticipate Carly Fiorina’s and Marco Rubio’s recent surges in the GOP race.

GOP 2016 Candidates: Percentage of votes received on ranked choice ballot.

GOP 2016 Candidates: Percentage of votes received on ranked choice ballot. These results are based on a subset of data collected by Civinomics in which voters filled out all ranks. Those results were adjusted to match 1st choice preferences in line with selected public opinion polls, thereby preserving down-ballot ratios.

The source data comes by way of the voting reform group FairVote, and Civinomics, a civic software startup based in Santa Cruz California which launched a new ranking site in August. Well over 3,000 ranked votes were submitted for the GOP poll by mid-September. Not surprisingly, the results offer fresh insights about that crowded race.

I’ve been monitoring activity there for a while. At first Rand Paul was in front. Then a huge wave of Donald Trump supporters showed up. Carly Fiorina briefly took the lead. Last time I checked, Ben Carson was far far ahead. Each surge of votes for a given candidate was probably triggered by an email sent out by his or her campaign, or perhaps because of a comment that appeared somewhere on a partisan social media feed. That kind of swarming behavior is fairly typical of online polls, though you usually don’t see so many distinct groups pop out.

With no control for demographic balance and no guard against participant bias, the raw Civinomics results can’t be considered representative of the voting public. Technically, it’s a “nonprobability poll.” Results aren’t deemed scientifically valid because of the way participants select themselves. The data collected don’t meet the highest standards for random sampling.

But accuracy isn’t the point. That’s not what Civinomics and FairVote are trying to achieve. Just like the Oscar Best Picture sample ballots that FairVote has promoted over the past few years, the goal is to get more people to see the benefits of ranked choice voting.

By the same token, a closer look at these ballots can enlighten people about the benefits of ranked choice polling. At a minimum, it can help advance development of a more rigorous and dependable methodology for it.

* * *

There were 3,153 ballots in the data set I downloaded from Civinomics on Saturday, September 5. Of those, nearly 800 participants had ranked just a single candidate. About half the participants ranked at least 6 candidates while 891 ranked all 17. Most of my analysis focused on that last subset. I’m interested in how ranked choice voting can serve “team players” who make the effort to evaluate the full list of candidates presented to them.

Carson supporters vastly dominated the original data, with Trump in second place, followed by Paul and Kasich. The same was true in the subset of voters who filled in all 17 ranks. I ran a transformation on that subset which was designed to match proportions with on-the-ground, real-world polling, where Trump dominates. I used a combination of polls available at Huffpost pollster.

This is where things get very technical, Suffice it to say that, rather than base the transformation on Huffpost’s statistical aggregate of polls, I used sources that had the lowest numbers of undecided voters. This allowed for relatively less fudging in comparison with a snapshot that would in any event become obsolete fast.

To match the real-world percentages, I calculated the multiples that would have to be applied to the sets of ballots cast, grouped by a voter’s first choice. That approach preserves the down-ballot sentiment for all the ranks submitted within each group. The calibration process generated a dataset with over 45,500 ballots. As it turned out, to get there, Carson’s multiple was 4. Trump’s was 42. The largest multiples by far went to Santorum and Huckabee (130 and 163), indicating that their supporters were most underrepresented in the Civinomics poll.

(Shortly after I drafted this post, I noticed that the Civinomics folks had also published their own reweighting based on standings in one of the prominent national polls.)

Given all these scrubbings and transformations, plus the normal caveats that go along with public opinion research, it would be foolish to pretend that the results presented here reflect today’s electorate. But the down ballot numbers do seem to align with traditional polling, giving reasonable confidence that this approach is sound.

For example, the results confirm Donald Trump’s controversial role in the contest. He is simultaneously the most popular and the most unpopular choice. As with “real world” polling among likely Republican voters, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson have notably low unfavorability scores while Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham have relatively high ones.

Things get very interesting when we examine the data to investigate which candidates are best positioned as consensus choices. Here’s a paragraph I drafted shortly before the second GOP debate.

These results also underscore the extent to which Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio are commanding considerable depth of support in this highly fragmented field. Those strong showings suggest they might perform very well in the Condorcet and Instant Runoff simulations that I plan to publish before long. That can have important implications as the Republican field begins to shrink.

This depth of support is indicated in the chart above, where their 6th place ranks (colored orange) reach considerably farther across the scale than downballot support for the former front runner Jeb Bush. That suggests they are in much better position to pick up support as the field shakes out at the bottom.

As it turned out, both Fiorina and Rubio surged after the debate. Their debate performances served them well, of course. But the analysis illustrates the extent to which they were positioned to break out from the pack. What’s being revealed here clearly strengthens arguments for the virtues of ranked choice polling.

* * *

It’s no secret that there are lots of people in the GOP who want to focus on defeating Donald Trump. They presumably recognize the virtues of coalescing around a strong opponent. If so, they might also recognize the utility of a polling tool that can help them locate that champion.

By the same token, Donald Trump has a strong interest in picking up new supporters as opponents drop out, and in getting a heads up about which opponent is most strongly positioned to coalesce his most vociferous opposition. This tool could help him, as well.

More importantly, for the long run, a tool like this can be used to help members of the electorate rank their own priorities and then evaluate candidates’ responses to questions on those priorities. Consider how useful mobile devices that support real-time interactive ranked choice feedback would be for straw poll and town hall participants. That’s the kind of tool worth building for a Democracy that wants to be worthy of the name. That’s what AimsPoll is ultimately designed to do.


Lots of Stuff Happened

I attended the Annual Conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research — AAPOR. It was a great experience, and I used the opportunity to pitch the virtues of ranked choice polling to folks at NBC, CNN, et al, and even Nate Silver. But nothing came of it.

The Iowa Straw poll was cancelled.

The ranked choice SurveyGizmo polls I’ve been running here never got any noteworthy traction.

So I put my resume online and soon landed a very interesting C# SQL contract-to-hire position.

But hope isn’t lost. I recently learned of Civinomics, a group in Santa Cruz (go Slugs!) that’s running an innovative RCV poll. And, in partnereship with Fairvote, they put things together just in time for the first GOP debate. I’ll make an effort to describe it in depth, at some point before long. For now, here’s a link to Fairvote’s announcement.


The Campaign Finance Heresies of Jeff Link and the ACLU

Exceptionally wealthy donors and professional fundraisers are rapidly gaining influence in American Presidential elections, and they’re doing it at the expense of voters. The constant task of raising money is clearly driving our “democracy,” even if we can’t predict where. There’s no doubt, however, that candidates are putting more and more of their very scarce time into dialing for dollars.

The toll for massive advertising wars must be paid, even if it means relegating sober discussions of critical issues to the backseat.  Soliciting donors comes first. No river of funding; no traction. Success at “raising dough” has become so critical, a group called EMILY’s List flaunts the process in its name, which stands for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.”

The trend has been obvious for decades, but things entered a new phase recently, due to a series of successful lawsuits by pro-Republican activists. As a consequence, numerous constraints on fundraising have been wiped away, freeing private and corporate donors to spend vastly more on political advertising than ever before.

Politicians also have new freedoms. Partisan gridlock has crippled the Federal Election Commission, giving candidates wide latitude to ignore many of the campaign finance rules that remain.

It won’t be long before we find out whether our democracy can absorb this rich haul of yeasty money, or succumbs to its infectious growth. But the early effects are unmistakable.

Candidates now have leeway to engage in long, drawn-out “testing-the-waters” pre-campaigns. It’s a ruse that allows them to coordinate the financial puff up of supposedly “independent” Super PACs, while simultaneously puffing up their own political profiles. Scott Walker and Jeb Bush are taking full advantage of the opportunity to build massive campaign war chests. The titanic primary battles ahead are just another symptom of money’s runaway infection.

The Republican Party is making things even worse by radically cutting the number of scheduled debates, presumably to allow the contenders more time to raise funds for negative ads.

With around a dozen serious candidates, the GOP could try steering their collective discussion toward a fortifying restatement of Party principles. Instead, “lower tier” candidates can expect to be muffled or treated like props during the showcase debates, if not shut out altogether. It’s likely they’ll be driven to shout over and at each other out of fear they won’t be heard at all.

As the public is cheated of opportunities to hear issues rationally explored, advertisers get more funds to ensure we’re emotionally detoured.

Coffers are filling for 2016. Brace for negative ads.

Or, as an alternative, consider how to make them irrelevant.

* * *

The current political environment results from a set of Supreme Court decisions in the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases. Those rulings eliminated significant rules and limits covering campaign contributions and expenditures.

In the aftermath, many voices on the left have been calling for a constitutional amendment that would enable stiff regulation of fundraising and spending. Senate Democrats initiated legislation to do just that in 2014. It was a quixotic effort that came to nothing.

It’s fair to ask whether Democrats are truly serious about wanting to stop the money flood. They didn’t seem alarmed by an earlier surge, in the summer of 2008, when ace fundraiser Barack Obama won the party’s nomination and abandoned prior commitments to accept spending limits. But that was a promise from a long time ago, which few remember anyway.

What’s harder for Democrats to forget is what happened after President Obama took office. They still resent the strategic intransigence displayed by Congressional Republicans in the face of financial collapse and harsh recession. They still resent the viciously non-stop over-the-top demonization of the President by aggressive right wing media. The still resent the sneering disregard for environmental protection from energy barons who deploy massive fortunes to put their proxies into office.

The last several years have left mainstream Democrats with a foul-tasting suspicion of game rigging by a cynical class of Republican plutocrats. That makes it easy for politicians to fire up the base by doubling down on promises to pursue campaign finance reform that corrals big spenders.

Hillary Clinton, another ace fundraiser, used her kickoff tour in Iowa to announce “we need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all — even if it takes a constitutional amendment.” Bernie Sanders has made it a showcase plank of his campaign, and he seems unequivocally sincere. Robert Reich, Thom Hartmann, and other prominent figures on the left have committed to reintroducing the amendment. Their movement is already getting support from members of Congress.

* * *

So far, the only Republican candidate speaking out in favor of the amendment is Lindsey Graham. He openly laments the tsunami of anonymously funded attack ads unleashed by the Supreme Court’s rulings. Unchecked, he warns, the explosion of dark Super PAC money in our elections threatens to “destroy American politics.”

Not surprisingly, of course, most Republican candidates don’t see it that way. They typically argue for the right of independent associations to petition the government and to engage in political expression.

Democrats tend to roll their eyes when they hear Republicans declaring themselves to be champions of free speech. It sounds more like a tactically convenient position for a Republican to take than a sincerely held belief, particularly if that Republican is likely to reap the benefits of a billionaire’s blessing. But similar concerns are expressed among the amendment’s rare opponents on the left. Laura Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Legislative Office, is among those lonely few.

As a matter of principle, Murphy worries about any proscription of free speech. She also believes that the precedent of limiting the rights of specific groups could be as threatening to liberal activists as conservative ones. The effort to “fix” Citizens United, she warns, is a slippery slope that could break the Constitution.

Others who favor legal reform but oppose the amendment prefer to focus on seemingly achievable and practical goals, starting with improved disclosure laws

Several on the left counter that a legal reform strategy is far too slow, given how quickly power is flowing to the mega-donors. Those who share that apocalyptic-sounding perspective are insisting on aggressive investigation of elite benefactors in order to fully expose what politicians are providing in return for Super PAC donations. For example, Peter Beinart, an alpha political pundit, urges pushing back against billionaires via a “cultural guerrilla war”… “that frontally attacks the oligarchy that dominates our gilded age.”

Another outlier on the left is Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic campaign consultant who’s a regular guest on Political Party Scoopers, a morning show on KCWI in Des Moines. He recently used that platform to weigh in on the flaws of the current finance system, proposing an alternative that he admitted would sound like “heresy” to other Democrats.

I think we need to eliminate the limits. The limits are just a joke. Everyone sets up Super PACs to get around the limit. What we should do is just say, “Look. If you’re a candidate, you can accept anything. You can accept corporate contributions. You can accept it in any amount. You can accept union dues. You can accept anything you want.  But you have to report it immediately. And you have to be accountable for every dollar that comes into your campaign, and every dollar that you spend, and everything that you say.”

Link’s dissent is well suited to Iowa, where relatively underfunded candidates have often triumphed, and where big spenders are frequently trounced. For example, Rick Santorum got a narrow win in the 2012 Caucus despite being overwhelmingly outspent by his Republican rivals.  TV and radio stations got lots of revenue (especially on behalf of Rick Perry and Mitt Romney), while voters took their time to look over the candidates and finally rallied around the one they preferred.

Iowans have evidently figured out how to reap the economic benefits of expensive media campaigns without being easily swayed by them.  Can anything about their relative resistance to political ads be exported to the rest of America? Possibly, yes.

It’s largely a matter of defeating the assumption that resistance is futile.

* * *

Advertisers explain their business model this way: “If you’re not paying for something, you’re the product.” Like television and radio, social media giants such as Facebook and Google provide you with endless hours of free content. They make massive profits in exchange for the opportunity to sell your receptive ears and eyeballs to marketers who pay handsomely to divert your attention.

These days, defining an ad’s audience is no less important than crafting its artwork. When the experts think about how to trigger responses in voters, they start by thinking hard about out whose trigger they’re seeking to pull. Campaigns are paying to locate people within finely sliced populations when their attention is most effectively and affordably captured. These micro-targeted audiences are matched up to ads that resonate with symbolic patterns tuned precisely for them.

Modern advertising combines avant-garde data science with deep demographic insight. It’s like figuring out where distinct schools of fish with distinct kinds of appetites each tend to hang out at lunchtime. Once you know, hooks can be baited accordingly.  As industry insiders fully understand, “The medium is the message.

What may be distinctive about Iowa voters, therefore, is the extent to which they make sure the candidate is the hook-able product, rather than themselves.

* * *

At first look, Iowa’s circumstances seem too unique to be duplicated. Voters expect candidates to meet them face to face at lots of small events, and the candidates oblige, visiting many of Iowa’s 99 counties, sometimes all. The state’s “first in the nation” status gives Iowans unusual leverage over the candidates, who start showing up months and even years ahead of the season opener. Well aware of how much difference their votes can make (and of the accompanying financial windfall), Iowans jealously defend the leading position of their caucuses in the national voting order.

So much is at stake in Iowa, serious candidates can’t afford to ignore it. Failure to prove political viability means being winnowed from the race. It’s particularly true in a crowded, fractured field, where slim margins of votes above or below expectations can mean new life or instant death to a campaign.

So, it’s clear that Iowa has a relatively high proportion of naturally curious people who are willing to put in the time and effort to engage with an extended list of candidates. What’s important is that there are enough of them to constitute a powerfully influential subculture. A simple back of the envelope calculation shows how powerful.

Consider the number of Iowa voters who get off the couch to participate in a local meet and greet. Factor in the average number of hours spent engaging with the candidates. Multiply that by a reasonable wage. It turns out that the monetary value of voter labor can far surpass the advertising bets placed by the campaigns, even in the era of Super PACs.

This analysis applies in New Hampshire as well. Parenthetically, Iowa has the highest voter turnout of any caucus state, while New Hampshire ties for 2nd among primary states. And both rank high among the turnout leaders in the general election.

Iowa is also distinctive for hosting so many “cattle calls” and straw polls. These events are quite popular among the state’s high concentration of social conservatives. But they also have a broader attraction, indicating a general propensity toward self-organization among base voters, whether left or right.

Straw polls energize the discipline and winnowing effects of shared public reflection. They put candidates through a mill… often a pay-to-play one, which helps the host group achieve its own fundraising goals.

The straw polls demonstrate concentrations of local power. They fortify a group’s sense of its own coherence. They make news. They can transform a small number of participants into a force to be reckoned with. That’s why social conservatives tend to run them early and often, as do progressive groups such as MoveOn.org.

* * *

The Iowa experience illustrates that noise is far less troublesome when there are high-quality pockets of signal to draw a crowd. That’s the key to exporting the Iowan resistance strategy. It might even aid development of a long-term immunity: Instead of working to reduce the overall quantity of paid political advertising, divert the candidates into raising the overall quality of their interaction with voters.

Americans have been playing whack-a-mole with campaign funding for as long as anyone can remember. Launching yet another effort to stifle its abuses sounds like the definition of insanity… doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result. We might instead, as a wise man once suggested, “build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Rather than lament how the smoke-filled rooms of the old party boss era have been replaced by the Koch-filled rooms of the dark money era, why not create rooms that open doors to a new democratic era? Just as it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness, adding a trustworthy source of signal offers more value than trying to jam ubiquitous noise.

There’s still time to organize a solid discussion on priorities, plans and principles for 2016. Program more debates, not fewer, and explore how to scale them and and make them smarter.  Promote online interactive Q&A feedback sites such as AimsPoll, which is designed to help issue-oriented candidates get a fair hearing from self-organizing pockets of issue-oriented voters. Just as candidates appreciate the value of visiting 99 Iowa’s counties, they could learn to appreciate the value of answering AimsPoll’s 99 voter-selected questions.

* * *

American elections suffer far more from our increasingly impoverished political culture than from a ballooning surplus of dark money. Reducing the overall amount of funds spent on advertising won’t necessarily decrease the proportion of funds spent on misleading attack ads.

The Constitutional amendment in the works won’t remedy the inanities of political advertising, and isn’t being designed to do so. It’s primarily an effort to constrain the mounting influence of wealthy elites and corporate actors. If the goal is to increase relative voter power, it makes better sense to do so directly by increasing voter resources rather than by closing off a channel or two of resources available to such wily, adaptable adversaries.

Proponents of a campaign finance amendment are likely to object that the escalating threats from dark money are simply too overwhelming to work around, and must be directly challenged. The shortcoming of that objection is that it presents no positive alternative. Even if manipulative and uninformative ads could be silenced, the void would have to be filled with something useful. Why not cut to the chase?

Moreover, a new Constitutional amendment couldn’t be put in force for the 2016 election anyway. If we need a revolution in the way we run elections, we need it now.


Jeff Link, Brent Roske, Lou Sipolt, Jr., and Craig Robinson on KCWI’s Political Party Scoopers. Link’s heresies start around 3:50.


Straw Poll Strategies


Ask not which one to vote for, but how to rank them all

Users of previous ranked choice straw poll sites I created are being invited by email to try AimsPoll. The message I’m sending out has a short description of what’s going on. I wanted to say more, but the initial draft got way too long. So, anyone interested in the full thought process can read it here.

Hello from Craig Simon,

Please take a moment to rank the candidates and issues for the 2016 Presidential race.

Your opinions are important.

Use the links at the bottom of this email to take the poll right away.

Or, if you want to get reacquainted first, read on.

* * *


Every recipient of this email probably remembers taking a ranked choice poll sometime over the last eight years.

That’s how you got on this list… You signed up at indaba.org, or choiceranker.com, or wevote.net, or americanquorum.com, or mayor2011.com, or one of the related Facebook apps I’ve built since starting this project.

Those sites generally focused on political surveys. Some of them also had big, diverse turnouts for various sports and entertainment polls. But they all shared the same database engine. And they all were motivated by the mission of “building better tools for better democracies.”

That experience means you’re already familiar with the concept of sorting your preferences 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so on. It also means you have some sense of the system’s simplicity, and perhaps even an appreciation of its power.

* * *

The poll I’m inviting you to take today uses the highly regarded SurveyGizmo platform. Big players in the online opinion research industry have started offering ranked choice systems, and SurveyGizmo is one of them. That’s great news. It proves the growing popularity of the approach.

Unfortunately, there’s a tradeoff. Robust as it is, SurveyGizmo doesn’t include important features you might remember from the sites I built, such as interactive media, social authentication, and real time tabulations.

Someday it might be possible to have the best of both worlds. For the time being, however, what’s most important is that the upcoming 2016 campaign opens the door for another chance to leverage the power of ranked choice polling.

The challenge for this cycle is to transform the results into action. That requires getting people who matter — politicians, pundits, and plutocrats, too — to take notice. And achieving that will depend, first of all, on understanding what AimsPoll is for.

* * *

AimsPoll’s surveys are intended to have predictive power…  but not like the demographically weighted, margin of error sampled, voter forecasts you’re used to seeing. Ironically, for each traditional survey that gets a prediction right, many more prove to be notoriously wrong.

As a wise man once said, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Imagine an interactive petition that enables diverse groups of people to coalesce on the fly as they articulate their common resolve, compelling responses from the targets of their message. The idea isn’t as futuristic or utopian as it might first appear. In fact, it’s only a few steps more advanced than the straw polls that Republican Party conservatives put on so frequently.

Why have those straw polls become so increasingly popular? Much of the answer has to do with fundraising and promotion, of course. But there’s more. As it turns out, straw polls promise the discipline and winnowing effects of organized public reflection. They fortify a group’s sense of its own coherence. They demonstrate concentrations of local power. They make news. They transform the participants into a force to be reckoned with.

Applying ranked choice technology to straw polls adds two benefits. First, visually interactive data collection tools let users express a fuller range of opinions in a very short period of time. Second, advanced tabulation algorithms reveal where views will coalesce most effectively.

Those virtues pay off most highly fragmented, multi-candidate races, like the current GOP contest. For that matter, we should keep in mind that the Democratic contest isn’t over till it’s over.

Why should members of a thoughtful community settle for a “frontrunner” who can only muster a 13% plurality? Antique ballot technology isn’t up to the challenge of discovering their fundamental alignments or representing their most broadly shared views.

Modern techniques raise smarter questions about overall attitudes toward the candidates. Who has the greatest depth of support?  Who triumphs most often in head-to-head challenges? Who would win the most thorough possible runoff?

Ranked-choice ballots give fairer results by surfacing for more meaningful details about voter sentiments. That’s why your participation in AimsPoll truly matters.

The long-term goal of this project is to have candidates create video and essay responses for each of the top ranked issues. When that happens, primary and caucus voters will be able to use AimsPoll to access side-by-side comparisons on the issues they care about. So, how do we make that happen?

For better or worse, we live in a horse race obsessed media environment. Discussions of issues are neglected  by journalists who above all crave news about who’s gaining and who’s falling behind. That hunger for a contest can be exploited. This is because the results of ranked choice polls look like horse races on steroids. Journalists can mine them for rich stories about the trials and tribulations of candidates jockeying through the pack.

The trick is to steer journalists into linking their stories about horse races with stories about issues. Here’s how. If a handful of contenders can be enlisted into competing in a “Rank the best candidate videos on issues x, y and z” contest, the others will face pressure to follow.

As we know, just a few dozen votes in a prestigious straw poll ahead of the Iowa Caucuses can mean life or death to a candidate’s prospects. When everything is at stake, the jockey needs to look for all potential openings up ahead while guarding against moves from behind and from the flanks. Each candidate realizes that participating in a debate is risky, but that skipping it is a sure way to lose it.

This strategy builds on a lesson from Political Science 101. “Politics is about managed competition.” So manage it. Create venues that bake in attractions for signal over noise. And make things easier for “low information voters” who wait until the last few days before an election to look into who’s running and where they stand on the issues.

That’s why your opinions are so important for AimsPoll to succeed. There’s one poll for Republicans and another for Democrats. The first section lets you rank your favorite candidates in order of preference. The second section allows you to rank the issues you want to hear the candidates talk about. About 2,000 completed surveys are needed to reach the threshold at which we expect politicians and pundits will begin to pay attention.



Hilvetica and Marshall McLuhan


Hillary Clinton’s campaign knows how to play it cool.

The Media Ecology Association (MEA) is a group comprised of folks who know something of the work of Marshall McLuhan.

(Not everyone will get that oblique reference. It hints at a scene in Woody Allen’s film, Annie Hall, where McLuhan plays himself in a cameo role, and puts down a pontificator with the line “You know nothing of my work.” Explaining the joke is a pedantic exercise, but the name dropping provides tasty bait for Google’s web crawler bots, thus raising the chances of this post being listed by their search engine someday. So, to my human readers, thank you for your patience. Let’s carry on.)

Soon after Hillary Clinton’s highly anticipated announcement video was released, an MEA member, Paul Levinson (Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University), gushed about the video’s “masterful” technique, which he described as particularly “cool” from a “McLuhanesque” perspective. One of his main points is that Clinton’s late (and very brief) appearance in the video invites viewers to want to know more about her.

Levinson’s observation kicked off a long back and forth on the MEA list about whether our pervasive environment of media addiction has trumped all concern for substantive political discourse.

I chimed in, pointing out that Clinton had also just changed her Twitter avatar. Just prior to the announcment she was using a well-known black and white photo in which she was wearing sunglasses and reading a message on her smartphone (it was about the death of Muammar Khadafi, as I recall). That’s McLuhanesque cool, if anything is. Nearly all the other candidates have been using much hotter smiling color headshots, facing directly into the camera.


Clinton’s Twitter avatar when her job status was “TBD”

Now Clinton’s avatar is also her campaign logo… a sharp-edged Blue H, with a red-accented arrow, created for her by the design firm Pentagram  For McLuhan acolytes, text is considered “hot.” But McLuhan also describes certain effects by which a medium can “overheat” and undergo a reversal.

Arguably, we’re seeing that happen with Clinton’s new logo. It inspired graphic designer Rick Wolff to build a typeface called variously “Hilvetica,” “Hillary Bold,” or “Hilvetica Bold.” Now a webpage, hosted by the Washington Post, lets anyone make a slogan in Hilvetica. It’s an invitation for audience participation. Hot has exploded into cool before our eyes

This post says nothing about the actual issues of the campaign, of course. So McLuhan’s suggestion for a better way to conduct a Presidential debate is worth mentioning. It would involve shorter conversations with the candidates sitting together at a table rather than each standing separately at a podium. We’ve seen this approach tried a few times since he proposed it in 1976.

The long-term goal of AimsPoll is to facilitate an updated version of that better conception of debate, leveraging the opportunities of the Web to “get the audience into the act.” But there’s not much demand for that yet. Today’s fashion demands dressing in Hilvetica.


Pairwise Pain vs. Ranked-Choice Relief


Without the right user interface, lots of candidates could require lots of clicks before all the preferences are put in order.

Here’s a handy formula that expresses a key virtue of ranked-choice interfaces over head-to-head pairwise evaluations… N(N-1)/2.

Head-to-head interfaces are typical of “Whose hotter?” sites such as candobetter.com. The point is to simplify the task of evaluating a long list of options. Users view a randomly selected pair of images from a large set, and then select one. The choice is recorded and another pair of images is displayed. It’s fine for idle entertainment since it’s so easy. Of course, the typical user gets bored and quits long before all the options are exhausted. Why? N(N-1)/2.

The reality of N(N-1)/2 boils down to this: As the number of candidates to be evaluated increases by 1, the possible number of pairwise evaluations grows at an increasingly higher number. The growth is less than half the rate of an exponential increase, but significant nonetheless. The underlying math is simple and straightforward, as Larry Bowen demonstrates, with significant implications for interface design.

One of the most advanced head-to-head crowdsourcing applications currently online is AllOurIdeas.org, a Google-funded project led by Princeton-based Sociologist Matthew Salganik. It’s a serious, text-oriented approach toward what Salganik calls “Bottom-Up Social Data Collection.” It’s been used to help small groups design their web sites and to help US citizens discuss national priorities. But even a site as sophisticated as that can’t escape the fundamental challenge of N(N-1)/2.

With just two choices per page, hot-or-not sites and AllOurIdeas benefit from having lots of room to display big, engaging pictures or crisp easy-to-read text boxes. On a per page basis, that space-saving approach leaves little room for confusion. But problems arise as the list of choices increases. It taxes respondent patience and undermines the accuracy of results.

Imagine a comparison of just 6 candidates in a hot-or-not styled contest. According to N(N-1)/2, the various names would be seen a total of 30 times. The voter or survey taker would have to click through 15 pages of pairs before a full ordering of preferences is possible. Even worse, someone could easily enter contradictory rankings, for example choosing A over B, B over C, and C over A. This “rock, paper, scissors” problem is known to mathematicians as intransitivity. People might fail to remember how prior choices were ranked, presuming they even bother to try. Or they might change their minds as they get cranky in the middle of a long survey session.

Things gets worse as lists get longer. Not exponentially worse, but enough to ruin the experience. Contests such as the 2012 GOP Presidential debates, which typically presented 8 candidates, would require 28 pages. A 12 candidate reality show such as a season-starting American Idol would require 66. A top 25 list such as college football’s Bowl Championship Series would require 300.

The bottom line is that a hot-or-not interface might be ideal if the only two choices are, say RCV versus hot-or-not. It might also be appropriate if the site owner’s main interest is to run up page views. But it’s a very different story when serious multi-candidate evaluations are called for, accurate responses are important, and an efficient user experience is desired.

An earlier version of my article is at my other blog… Comparing Ranked-Choice and Pairwise Evaluation User Experiences.


Rank Them All

Note from April 8, 2015. I spent several days with SurveyMonkey before discovering and falling in awe wwih SurveyGizmo. Unfortunately, Gizmo doesn’t have Monekey’s very nice question element styling feature, which I was using to put candidate pictures in the sortable list object. But so many other features are so good, the scales tip heavily. I’ll keep the Monkey poll as is, and see what happens when my month of subscription expires. Only five votes came in for this one. I was building a more ambitious survey with Monkey, but abandoend it once I saw the alternative. Some key pieces from it were used to build my first Gizmo survey, Department of Oops.

“Ask not which one to vote for, but how to rank them all.”

Move your favorites to the top, and the ones you most oppose to the bottom.

This is the long list of candidates who have made credible moves to seek the Democratic or Republican Party nomination for President. It also includes several who wouldn’t merit inclusion on a strictly pared list due to lack of serious logistical efforts or plain statement of intent. Elizabeth Warren has consistently said she is not running, but is here because of the active movement to draft her.

This poll uses the Survey Monkey service. It is excellent in many ways, but has some shortcomings. Most notable is that it forces every candidate to be ranked. That inability to leave candidates off is not a showstopper. The best way to use this is to put your favorites at the very top, and the ones you oppose the most at the very bottom. Leave those you’re most unsure of somewhere in the middle. Keep in mind that the results will be tabulated using algorithms by which voting down a candidate you strongly oppose is as important as voting up your true preferences and the others you would accept.

Follow @aimspoll on Twitter and join the AimsPoll page on Facebook to get announcements of the results.


More Twitter Traction Metrics

During the process of collecting Twitter metrics on the candidates, I started adding in comparisons of several voter-oriented online groups. It’s intriguing to see which folks put a lot of effort into tweeting, despite having relatively small numbers of followers. That’s why the traction metric is useful. Going for volume without enough traction risks wheel spinning.

ReThink Democracy@ReThinkDemocrcy902571050.16
The GovLab@TheGovLab66201859123.56
League of Women Voters@LWV9304170001580.55
Nat. Inst. on Civic Discourse@NICDInstitute94982310224.11
Center for Civic Media@civicMIT102006146631.66
Impact Democracy@ImpactDemocracy1420081771161.74
Citizens United@Citizens_United1430096771381.48
Common Cause@CommonCause18300133002431.38
New America Foundation@NewAmerica21800170003711.28
Peterson Foundation@pgpfoundation2410015173715.89
National Urban League@NatUrbanLeague3710088803294.18
American Enterprise Institute@AEI439003120013701.41
Center for American Progress@amprog48400153007413.16
No Labels@NoLabelsOrg12900012300158710.49
NRA News@nranews1450002270032926.39
National Rifle Association@NRA2660006265166642.46
Lawrence Lessig@lessig3340008741291938.21
Heritage Foundation@Heritage486000464002255010.47

Selected Public Interest Organizations, March 2013

Volume = (Followers * Tweets) / 1,000,000.
Traction = Followers / Tweets.