Monday, November 18, 2013

The Predictive Power of (Very) Early Presidential Primary Polling Part III - 1984 Democratic Primary

From left, Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, John Glenn, George McGovern, and Jesse Jackson participate in a primary debate in March of 1984. John Glenn and Gary Hart seriously challenged Mondale in national polling at various stages of the pimary process, though none of the three candidates led in the first year of 1984 primary polling. Photo courtesy of Wally McNamee/CORBIS

The wealth of 2016 polling, of both the general election and primary sort, led veteran news journalist Tom Brokaw to quip yesterday morning on "Meet the Press": "We have an hour to fill." Los Angeles Times writer Mark Barabak recently dedicated an entire column to their futility. And the mere existence of a recent NBC/WSJ poll on the 2016 general election practically ruined NPR reporter Don Gonyea's breakfast last week.

Overly dramatic or not, many of the talking heads looking down on early 2016 polling, at least on the primary level, are justified in their skepticism. Early presidential primary polling, especially those taken the first year following the preceding presidential election, are historically unreliable. In fact, only 3 of the last 15 Republican or Democratic primaries saw the leader in very early polling go on to win the nomination (as noted in parts one and two of this series).

To be fair, as Nate Silver has noted in the past, presidential primary polling accuracy rises sharply following midterm elections. But surveys conducted between the preceding general election and the midterms accurately forecasted the eventual nominee for just three people: Al Gore in 2000, Bob Dole in 1996, and George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Part 2 of this series began exploring those primaries where the eventual winner was on the polling radar very early in the process, but was not the initial leader (such as the case with George W. Bush in 2000). In this third installment, I'll continue in the same vein by looking at 1984 Democratic Primary Polling conducted between November 4, 1980 and December 31, 1982. Like in 2000, the eventual nominee (Walter Mondale) showed up in early polling, just not as a frontrunner. That title belonged to Edward Kennedy.

For the fourth consecutive Democratic presidential Primary in a row, Ted Kennedy was the obvious early frontrunner for the nomination, while the eventual nominee ran a consistent, if not terribly close second.  It wasn't until Kennedy's official announcement he would not be a candidate for President on December 1, 1982, that Mondale was able to grab his first polling lead among Democratic primary voters.

Former astronaut and Ohio Senator John Glenn typically ran in third place in pre-'82 midterm polling, though a November 2, 1982 exit poll showed him locked in a surprisingly close three-way contest for the nomination with Teddy Kennedy and Walter Mondale.

Heck, even Jimmy Carter made several appearances in early 1984 primary polls. For being a recently defeated ex-President, Carter was surprisingly weak with Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents. His strongest performance came in a January 1982 Gallup poll where he was the preference of 31% of Democratic poll respondents, but that was in a one-on-one against Edward Kennedy, who racked up 52%. His numbers looked even worse when offered alongside a larger crop of candidates, averaging just 7% across the 7 total surveys that included Carter's name as a potential Presidential candidate for 1984.
 The similarities between Walter Mondale's poll standing in 1982 and George W. Bush's in 1997 are obvious, but that's where they stop. Unlike Bush, the ex-Vice President to Jimmy Carter didn't have a cake walk to the nomination following the 1982 midterm.

Mondale led the field for the first quarter of 1983, until Sen. John Glenn experienced a polling surge following his official entry into the 1984 Presidential race on April 21, 1983. That surge was first detected by a Los Angeles times poll in early May that showed Glenn leaping eleven points to 28% of the vote since their previous survey one month earlier, while Mondale fell from 34% to 26%. All total, John Glenn led in four Democratic Primary surveys taken from May to September 1983 across 14 total polls, averaging 26% to Walter Mondale's 31%. By January of 1984, before any primary contest had been held, Glenn's poll standing had dropped into the low double-digits, where it remained until he dropped out of the race in March. Mondale, meanwhile, returned to "strong-frontrunner" status in the fall of 1983, and even managed 57% nationally in the last CBS/NYT poll taken before the New Hampshire primary.

Unfortunately for Mondale, John Glenn's Spring/Summer 1983 polling surge would not be his worst headache of the 1984 primary season. That distinction would be belong to two-term Colorado Senator Gary Hart, though there was no way to foresee that from his polling average in 1980-1982 (3%, see the first chart above).

Yes, the man who gave Walter Mondale the most serious run for the nomination was barely on the radar in the 53 surveys taken before Hart's February 28, 1984 New Hampshire primary win. That single victory catapulted him overnight to just a 37-35% deficit against Mondale, an incredible leap from the paltry 2% he was polling at nationally in Gallup's pre- New Hampshire survey.* A few days later, Sen. Hart snagged the first of four total national polling leads in a CBS/NYT poll.

The rest was history. Mondale and Hart engaged in a five month, 50-state back-and-forth that was awfully reminiscent of the 2008 Hillary/Obama battle, and resulted in a near split verdict. Mondale won just 22 states, to Hart's 25, but led the popular vote by 2 points, 38-36% (Jesse Jackson received 18% of the vote and won two contests). The final national survey taken Jul 5-8, 1984, just before the Democratic National Convention, showed Mondale leading Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson 44-38-9%.**

1984 Democratic Primary Polling, 1980-1984.

So, the bottom line regarding early 1984 Democratic presidential primary polling's predictive ability - it was quite poor. The surveys simply did not point to Mondale's periodic poll domination and eventual nomination, nor Gary Hart's late, sudden surge. Anyone operating in a vaccum of 1980-1982 Democratic primary polling could be forgiven for predicting an inevitable Teddy Kennedy nomination. Simply put, the 1984 Democratic Primary only serves to cast more doubt on primary polls taken 2-4 years before the start of actual contests.

*Gallup Poll, Feb, 1984. Retrieved Nov-17-2013 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.
**ABC News/Washington Post Poll, Jul, 1984. Retrieved Nov-17-2013 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

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