Friday, November 15, 2013

The Predictive Power of (Very) Early Presidential Primary Polling Part II - 2000 Republican Primary

Elizabeth Dole polled a closer 2nd place to George W. Bush in 2000 Republican Primary polling than John McCain ever did.

This is a continuation of a piece I wrote last week that examines the last 40 years of Republican and Democratic presidential primaries in an attempt to understand the predictive value of polls taken two to three years before the start of actual primary contests.

Just before the 2012 race, Nate Silver looked at whether polls taken ONE year before the Iowa Caucuses presaged the eventual nominee, and found that yes, in many instances, they do. This series will look back even further, before the ink dries on your just-cast presidential ballot, to see if polls did as well further out from the primary race. Not surprisingly, the answer is no.

As discussed yesterday, very early primary polling had predictive value as to the final result in just three of the fifteen Republican and/or Democratic primaries examined dating back to 1976 (the 2000 Democratic and 1988 & 1996 Republican presidential primaries). But excluding those three contests, very early primary polling has been unhelpful in identifying eventual nominees.

One of the best examples of early primary polling's failure at political forecasting is the 2000 Republican contest. Contrary to how it may seem, the massive lead that eventual winner George W. Bush commanded for most of the primary season did not exist in 1997, the first year of Clinton's second term, before any layperson had heard the name Monica Lewinsky, and before Bush had been overwhelmingly re-elected to the Texas Governorship.

That was thanks to a very popular African American General, Colin Powell. Powell surprised observers early in the '96 cycle with impressive, hypothetical head-to-head performances against President Clinton (even leading him by double digit margins on multiple occasions.) So you can understand why, following a disappointing presidential loss, 35% of Republican primary voters were willing to support him as their candidate for President in 2000.

As you can see, Powell's early strength in 2000 primary polling was briefer than in the '96 cycle. By mid-1998, after repeated assertions he would not be running for President "or anything" in 2000, pollsters got the hint and dropped Powell from their surveys. But he led in five out of the six polls in which his name was included (and was a close second to Bush in the one he did not). The final survey to include Powell as a candidate for President put him ahead of George Bush 25-16%, with Elizabeth Dole, Jack Kemp, and Dan Quayle trailing at 8%, 7%, and 7% respectively.*

So Powell exited the race on a high note.

With the exception of 1997, the 2000 GOP primary process closely mirrored the three I discussed yesterday - Bush positively dominated polls throughout 1998, 1999, & 2000. Senator John McCain, despite the media excitement he created following his New Hampshire win, never seriously threatened Bush from a national polling perspective. In a Gallup survey taken prior to the February 1st NH primary, McCain managed just 15% in a national poll of Republicans, vs. Bush's 65%. After the NH primary, the lead was a considerably smaller, but still daunting 56-34%. That Gallup finding also represented John McCain's national peak, as it was downhill from then until his official exit on March 10, 2000.

Out of 131 total 2000 GOP Primary surveys taken, Bush led in all but five. But traveling back in time to 1997, no one could have foreseen that based off polling alone.

Fun facts: Outside of Colin Powell, former Secretary of Labor, N.C. Senator, and would-be First Lady Elizabeth Dole was Bush's strongest polling foe in 2000 primary surveys (even more so than John McCain), trailing him by as little as 9 points in a February 1999 Fox News Poll of Republicans.

*Harris Poll, Jul, 1998. Retrieved Nov-12-2013 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.
**Harris Poll, Oct, 1997. Retrieved Nov-12-2013 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

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