There are many ways to hold an election with more than two candidates. For most major elections in this country, we are stuck with perhaps the worst, the familiar plurality voting, in which each voter picks one candidate and the highest vote total wins. If you are unfamiliar with the deficiencies of plurality voting, one place to look is this excellent blog post, written by mathematician Tim Gowers in the context of Britain’s recent (sadly unsuccessful) referendum to change their system. If this seems like a mere technical issue, one should look here at a notorious historical election in which the winning party carried 33% of the vote.
Plurality voting is especially bad in a crowded field where no single candidate has strong support, as in the current Republican presidential primary race. We open our daily paper and see that Herman Cain is a front-runner with a whopping 25% of the vote, but cannot tell if he is the second choice or last choice of the other 75%. This surely has an impact on his chances of success, both as the primary field narrows and in the general election.
Now, changing an electoral system is a very difficult thing, not least because those in power got there via the current system. But what of polls? These do not suffer from any similar institutional inertia, and there is no monopoly on polls; Gallup, Rasmussen, etc. are each free to ask whatever questions they see fit. Surely we would get a better picture of the mood of the electorate by, at minimum, asking each pollee to approve/disapprove of each candidate, or, better still, rank each candidate on a numerical scale of 1 to 5 or 10, or simply rank all candidates in order of preference. No single method is perfect, so some variety might be ideal. Since polls have an impact on real elections, improving polls might reduce some of the idiosyncrasies that arise from plurality voting. Of course, it would also be the responsibility of attention-span-deficient news outlets to report not just the familiar plurality-based polls, but also those which give a more detailed picture of the electorate’s preferences.