Wednesday, April 3, 2013

2008 vs. 2016 Democratic Primary Contests: A Comparison of Hillary's "Inevitability" THEN and NOW

Contrary to what some believe, the Hillary Clinton of 2008 was not nearly as strong in Democratic primary polling as she is today. Photo courtesy of (left).
 Its been eight years since the Democratic Party has seen a competitive primary contest, but the similarities between this point in the 2008 presidential cycle and today are undeniable; Hillary Clinton is the obvious Democratic standard-bearer, she has a major lead against her possible primary contenders, and the sense of inevitability surrounding her eventual coronation is strong and near-universal.

But for all the comparisons between Hillary '08 and Hillary '16, there are a number of differences. In 2008, she was running AGAINST eight years of Republican reign that had become amazingly unpopular with the American public. This time around, she'll be running to continue the legacy of what has been, based merely on presidential job approval ratings, 8 years of a mediocre presidency.

Furthermore, today, the mere thought of having to compete against a more-popular Clinton-juggernaut has essentially frozen the Democratic Primary field (with the sole exception of the little-known and ambitious Governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley). In 2005, there was no "frozen field" to speak of. The newly unemployed John Edwards made moves almost immediately following his failed Vice Presidential bid to indicate he was starting a 4-year-campaign for the presidency. Questions abounded regarding the intentions of Sen. John Kerry, the unsuccessful '04 Democratic nominee that only lost by a respectable 2.5 pt margin. The much aggrieved 2000 nominee and former Vice President Al Gore was lurking in the background, as well as 2004 grass-roots super-star and one-time favorite for the nomination, Howard Dean. In the end, only 1 of the above mentioned names jumped into the 2008 primary, but unlike today, potential candidates were making some not-so-under-the-radar movements towards a presidential bid.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the 2008 and 2016 presidential presidential cycles to date lies in the polling. The chart below shows the monthly polling averages of the Obama v. Clinton primary battle from immediately following the 2004 election to the conclusion of the Democratic primary in June 2008, divided into two periods: Nov. 2004 through the Iowa Caucus, and the Iowa Caucus through Hillary's campaign suspension in June. The information in the chart is based off of about 350 surveys compiled from, real clear politics, and Wikipedia. The excel file including the 350 survey data-set can be viewed here. To be included in the data set, a 2008 poll must have tested both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the hypothetical primary contest. Where I was able to track down a survey's cross tabs, a demographic break down of the Hillary/Obama vote is provided, though you'd be surprised as to how difficult it can be to track down obscure, 5-year old cross tabs.
For a full list of the surveys used in compiling the averages, go here.

As you can see, Hillary enjoyed a healthy 16 point lead over Barack Obama during the early stages of the 2008 primary (39-23%), before any contest was held; you know...the period in which pundits were discussing her apparent inevitability. Which begs the question, at least in the context of polling: what was so inevitable about a 16 point lead, especially when the leader was well below 50%?

To be fair, a lot of those "inevitability" articles were being written in the Fall of 2007, by far Clinton's polling peak of the entire primary season. In the months of October, November, and December preceeding the Iowa Caucus, she led Obama by an average of about 20 points, or 43-24%. But still, as real of a possibility as it seemed at the time, Hillary's current Democratic primary polling numbers make the 2008 claims of ineveitability seem wildly over-stated. Consider the chart below which documents every national 2016 Democratic Primary poll taken since the election:

If Hillary's poll numbers classified her as a strong contender in 2008, then 2016 polling to date would indicate she practically has the primary battle won. Her weakest performance among Democratic primary voters in 2016 surveys to date was 57% in January of this year, with her 2nd place opponent Joe Biden coming in at just 16%; a stunning 4 to 1 margin against a 5-year sitting Vice President.

Not only that, but Hillary runs circles around Biden in the demographic breakdown of each survey, reaching 60% or more among both BLACK, WHITE, and WOMEN voters, while reaching 50% or more among MEN and LATINOS. Joe Biden never attracts more than 23% of any demographic, while only managing 14% among WHITES and WOMEN.

For comparison, in the first two years of the 2008 Democratic primary contest ('05-'06), Hillary Clinton only averaged 33% of the vote in hypothetical contests against Barack Obama (see 1st chart above). Today, she averages 60%. In fact, even at Hillary Clinton's 2008 primary polling peak (October 2007), she only averaged a 21 point lead over Barack Obama, 44-23%, a margin which fails in comparison to the findings of PPP's five 2016 primary polls to date.

So basically, cynics of the "inevitable Hillary" who dismiss her current polling domination by comparing it to 2008 are a little off the mark. Hillary was strong in 2008, but her polling strength is much greater today than it was then. That doesn't mean things can't change, and Hillary cynics have some good arguments as to why she WON'T be the 2016 Democratic nominee. But it's hard to deny that she's starting the race from a higher perch than the already-cozy one she had in 2008.

NOTE: In compiling a database of Obama-Clinton '08, I had a few of my previous notions about the 2008 Democratic Primary contest debunked. Contrary to my belief, Barack Obama's lead among black Democrats didn't occur after he started winning primary contests in January and February 2008. It occurred BEFORE that. In fact, as early as November 2007, Obama was AVERAGING a 43-41% lead over Hillary with black voters. By December, before any primary ballot was cast, he averaged a 44-37% lead. And by January, the avalanche had begun, as his Iowa & SC victories brought him an average 60-27% lead. He ended the primary season with the support of 74% of blacks, while Hillary's had dropped to 14% (a miraculous fall from her October 2007 average lead among blacks of 53-35%).

Also, despite Barack Obama's near primary dominance from Super Tuesday onward, he never won the support of a plurality of WHITE Democrats in monthly averages. Even by the end of the primary season, he trailed Hillary Clinton an average of 43-40% with whites. More significantly, of the 350 Obama/Clinton surveys that provided demographic breakdowns in their cross tabs, Obama only ever led among white Democrats ONCE...ONE TIME out of 350 polls. That survey was taken May 5-6, 2008 by Economist/YouGov, and only showed Obama ahead 42-41% with white voters.

Furthermore, Obama never won the support of a plurality of Democratic WOMEN. The closest he came was in the month of April, when he trailed Clinton among women by an average 45-40%. He actually never won the female vote in a single poll that provided demographic cross tabs from '04-'08.

Pretty interesting stuff for a candidate that still went on to win his party's nomination, as well as the presidency twice. 

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