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, or, or, or, or, 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.



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