Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Predictive Power of (Very) Early Presidential Primary Polling Part IV - 2008 GOP & 1980 Democratic Primaries

Both Rudy Giuliani (R-NY) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) led primary polling for the first three years of their respective party's primary process, only to come up empty handed. Photos courtesy of Joan Readle/Getty (left), and Corbis (right)

Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie would stand a fair chance of winning their party's nomination if Republicans and Democrats decided on a nationwide basis at the ballot box today. But then again, so would General Colin Powell at a similar point in 1997, and Senator Edward Kennedy in 1981. Unfortunately for them, that's not how the party's pick their nominees.

As discussed in part 1 of this series, there have only been three instances in the last forty years of presidential primary polling in which the frontrunner in the first year following the preceding election went on to win his party's nomination.

Clinton and Christie can't like those odds. But about 80% of the time, or three out of the last fifteen primaries, early surveys were unreflective of final results.

The twelve Republican or Democratic primaries since 1976 to feature non-predictive early primary polling split roughly into two groups - 1) those where the eventual nominee showed up in early surveys, but not as the frontrunner (as discussed in Part 2 and 3 of this series), and 2) those where the eventual nominee seems to have come from nowhere, emerging in much later polling, sometimes after primary contests have begun.

This fourth installment will continue to focus on group one above...namely the 2008 Republican and 1980 Democratic Presidential Primaries.


It's been less than ten years, but some may be surprised to recall that there was a definite polling frontrunner in the early 2008 primary process - it just wasn't John McCain. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had been in the spotlight since the September 11th terrorist attacks, which took place in the waning three months of his eight year mayorship. That adoration turned to presidential speculation not long after the Republicans renominated President Bush in 2004. By the next year, the speculation had translated into a fairly consistent lead in early 2008 Republican presidential primary polling:

Across sixteen surveys in the first year following the 2004 presidential election, Giuliani led likely GOP foes in twelve of them, tied for first place in two, and finished a close second place in the remaining two.

Sound like some weird alternate universe in retrospect? Consider the fact that the only 2008 Republican players at this early stage appeared to be Giuliani, McCain, Condoleezza Rice, and the incumbent President's younger brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush. George Allen, pre-"Maccacca" moment, was thought of by insiders as a natural Bush standard-bearer, but was still largely unknown per national polls, and Mitt Romney was barely a blip on the radar screen.

As you can see, there was nothing in John McCain's two relatively minor national poll leads in 2005 to suggest he would eventually win a nearly 50% majority of Republicans primary voters across the country in a crowded field. But if you thought the 2005 GOP primary polling numbers were misleading, 2006 and 2007 did little to clear things up.

In fact, Giuliani's polling domination only grew as the primary contests approached, making his eventual 3% of the total popular vote seem all the more lacking. Fred Thompson and John McCain nipped at Giuliani's heals on occasion, but for all intents and purposes, Giuliani was almost as dominant in 2008 Republican Primary Polling as Hillary Clinton was in 2008 Democratic primary polling - that is, until just before contests actually began in January '08.

In mid-December 2007, just about three weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, Gov. Mike Huckabee saw his polling fortunes rise rapidly (largely due to a string of strong debate performances and a newly invigorated evangelical base).

A Pew Research poll taken in the final two weeks of December 2007 (and the final pre-Iowa national GOP survey to be released) essentially showed a 3-way tie between McCain, Huckabee, and Giuliani.

Huckabee took his first national Gallup poll lead in a survey released following his Iowa Caucus victory. Unfortunately for him, that would be the extent of his polling bump from the Iowa win, as John McCain won the New Hampshire primary just a few days later, prompting his own polling bump. The first survey released after the January 8, 2008 NH primary saw McCain jumping to 34% of the vote nationwide, with Huckabee sliding fast to 21%, and Giuliani in 3rd at 18%. Before any votes were cast on Super Tuesday (February 5, 2008), Giuliani, the frontrunner for three straight years, had quit the race, Huckabee had essentially fallen out of contention from a national polling perspective, and McCain was the prohibitive nominee.

In the end, McCain led in a total of thirty-two national primary surveys, out of 181 taken; twenty-four of those were consecutive (McCain never trailed in a single national poll following his New Hampshire primary victory). Rudy Giuliani led in 142 polls! Huckabee led in three, and there were four ties.

A glance at Giuliani's red-line in the graph above should give anyone pause in drawing too much from primary polling released at this early stage.


Like George W. Bush in 2000, Walter Mondale in 1984, and John McCain in 2008, the 1980 Democratic nominee for President was NOT the polling frontrunner for the nomination in early primary surveys (that is, once pollsters finally got around to asking the question in 1978). This isn't such an unusual occurrence from a historical perspective, if not for the fact that Carter was the sitting President at the time.

Compare that fact to a November, 2010 Quinnipiac University poll showing Democrats NOT wanting an inter-party challenge to President Obama in 2012 by a 64-27% margin.

President Jimmy Carter wasn't offered the same deference from primary voters in '78 (or '79 for that matter). Who would be there to capitalize on his weaknesses? Perennial non-candidate and '72/'76 Democratic primary frontrunner, Ted Kennedy, of course. The difference this time, however, is that Kennedy was actually running:

Although, Kennedy wasn't running at the time the above polling was conducted. That announcement wouldn't become official until November 7, 1979. But until that day, just two months before the Iowa Caucus, the President trailed Kennedy in every national survey of the Democratic Primary race, often by wide margins (with the sole exception of late 1978, following the Camp David Accords, when Carter nearly caught Kennedy in the polls):

The one thing more impressive than Kennedy's early strength against an incumbent Democratic President was his sudden collapse. Unfortunately for Kennedy, his November 1979 entry into the Presidential race coincided with the Iranian capture of fifty-two United States students in Tehran, which came to be known as the Iran Hostage crisis. Carter's poor image, brought on by the energy crisis and high inflation, began to rebound, thanks to a rally-around-the-flag effect. This, coupled with a bumbled campaign roll-out for Kennedy, totally flipped the duo's polling numbers by the start of actual primary contests. So much so, Teddy was trailing Jimmy in a March 1980 Gallup poll by 45 points, 68-23%.* Amazing, considering just nine months earlier, it was Kennedy who led by 36 points in the same poll, 66-30%.

Kennedy was persistent, however, remaining in the contest despite sagging national poll numbers and primary loss after primary loss. "If only he'd had more time" is a frequent refrain of political losers, and it certainly applies to the 1980 Democratic primary.

Kennedy closed strong, notching late victories in large states like California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The final national survey of the Carter-Kennedy race, conducted just five days before the start of the August 11 Democratic National Convention, found Kennedy had crawled his way back to a deficit of just 11 points among Democrats, 49-38%.

While the 1980 Democratic primary may have ended as you would typically expect of a challenged incumbent President, it didn't start that way. Ted Kennedy's ability to capture the Democratic rank-and-file's attention, early in every primary cycle from 1972 to 1992, is unparallelled.

*Gallup Poll (AIPO), Feb, 1980. Retrieved Nov-19-2013 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

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