Thursday, February 20, 2014
The Predictive Power of (Very) Early Presidential Primary Polling Part V - 1980 & 2012 Republican Primaries
My original intent was to post this multi-part series all in sequence. But as it often does, life, work, and general procrastination took over. Oh well, better late than never. Here is the completed string of posts, in two final parts, on the extent to which very early primary polling has foretold final primary results, looking only at the fifteen contested presidential primaries dating back to 1976.
The data leaves room for one conclusion - the clear polling "frontrunner" in the first and/or second years following the preceding presidential election is seldom the eventual nominee. So seldom that it has only occurred three times since 1976, as discussed in Part I of this series.
The remaining twelve contested presidential primaries can be split evenly into two groups: (1) those where the eventual nominee appeared in early surveys, but not as the clear frontrunner (as discussed in Parts II through IV, and this post in particular), and (2) those where the eventual nominee seems to have come from nowhere, emerging in much later polling, sometimes after primary contests have begun (which is coming up in part VI).
Joining the 2000 and 2008 Republican and 1980 and 1984 Democratic primaries, the 1980 and 2012 Republican primaries wrap up this discussion of contests falling into group one discussed above. It may be surprising to learn that Ronald Reagan, who won both of his general election contests handily, and carried 60% of the primary vote in what was originally a crowded 1980 field, was NOT the clear frontrunner in 1977 and 1978, years before any contest was ever held. And the same can be said for Mitt Romney in 2012 - despite a decisive overall victory, his polling advantage was no where near as substantial in 2009. Consider the two tables below.
As you can see in the 1st table, Gerald Ford, who became an unexpected thorn in Reagan's second quest for the Presidency in 1976, was back and causing trouble again for his third. The unelected former President's close loss to Jimmy Carter led many to speculate Ford might run again, and he did little to squelch the speculation. As far as pollsters were concerned in the first year or so following Carter's victory, Ford's odds of winning the Republican nomination for a second time were as good as Reagan's. Across twelve surveys taken in 1977-1978, the two traded polling leads and averaged 35% of the Republican electorate apiece. Meanwhile, 1980 runners-up George H.W. Bush and John Anderson barely registered in early primary polls.
Mitt Romney, like Reagan before him, had also run for the Presidency before, and also had an old nemesis holding him back from "clear frontrunner" status in those first months of primary polling following Obama's historic win. Mike Huckabee had surged from no where in 2008 to win the Iowa Caucus, and was polling either in 1st or 2nd place in every '12 GOP primary survey taken in 2009. Romney was also locked in a three-way battle for early polling supremacy with the most recent Vice Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. In fact, it was Palin who had the highest polling average among likely Republican primary voters in 2009, buoyed largely by a Rasmussen survey taken the day after the 2008 election showing her with the support of nearly 2/3 of likely 2012 primary voters. Though he was rarely tested in 2009, the few times he was, Rudy Guiliani posted formidable numbers, even leading the field in one Fox News poll.
Fortunately for Ronald Reagan and Mitt Romney, fate eventually smiled upon them. In the former's case, Gerald Ford made it official he would not be a candidate for President in 1980, though not until well after some important primary dates had passed. And while George H.W. Bush gave Reagan a brief scare following his surprise Iowa Caucus victory, the large majority of the remaining contests fell decisively in Reagan's favor.
Thirty-two years later, Mitt Romney also never wound up having to face down his two most serious initial threats, with both Huckabee and Palin ultimately deciding not to run in 2011. But Romney's problems didn't stop with them. In fact, no less than TEN different potential and actual 2012 Republican Presidential primary candidates led at least one primary survey between 2008 and 2012 (in sequential order: Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum ). So while Romney may have been the fundraising and insider's frontrunner for most of the 2012 cycle, that was never clear from a pure polling perspective, at least not early on.
And that should come as no surprise, given what we've covered in this multiple part post so far. I'll conclude this series by looking at mondern-day, contested presidential primaries where the eventual nominee could not be deciphered from early polling. It will differ from the contests discussed in parts 1-5 in that it will feature presidential primaries where the eventual nominee did not emerge from the pack of contenders until much later in the process, or in some circumstances, even after the primary contests begin.