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History Shows January Front-runner Often Does Not Win Democratic Nomination

History Shows January Front-runner Often Does Not Win Democratic Nomination

Only 4 out of 10 January leaders over last half-century have won nomination

by Frank Newport and Joseph Carroll

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The presidential election primary season is upon us, with the Iowa caucus now less than two weeks away, and with the high visibility New Hampshire primary taking place in only three weeks, on Jan. 27. Not a single vote has yet been cast, but former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has already been anointed the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination (and is on the cover of both TIME and Newsweek magazines this week) -- based in large part on his strong showing in recent public opinion polls at both the national and state level.

But just how predictive is this type of strength in early national polling in terms of a candidate's chances of actually winning the Democratic nomination?

There have been 10 races over the last 50 years in which there was a significant contest for the Democratic nomination: 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, and 2000. (The omitted years of 1964, 1980, and 1996 were ones in which a Democratic incumbent president ran for re-election with little or no opposition.)

The nature of these contests has changed over the years, of course, but the comparison of early national poll results with the eventual nomination outcome provides us with a track record of sorts in our attempt to answer the "prediction" question. And the answer is clear: there is no clear relationship between the candidate leading in Gallup's national trial heat surveys among Democrats at the beginning of an election year and the eventual winner of the party's nomination. In fact, in only 4 out of the 10 elections (Adlai Stevenson in 1952, John F. Kennedy in 1960, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Al Gore in 2000) did the front-runner in late December/early January win the Democratic Party's nomination. In all other instances, someone else came from behind as the primary season unfolded.

2000 Presidential Election

In the 2000 presidential election, incumbent Vice President Al Gore maintained a considerable lead over Bill Bradley in the month leading up to the primary season, and Gore, of course, eventually won the party's nomination for president. A slight majority of Democrats, 52%, supported Gore in late December 1999, compared with just 38% who supported Bradley. Gore's role as Bill Clinton's vice president made him a quasi-incumbent in 2000, and he was widely expected to be his party's nominee.

Democratic Nomination for President
(Horse Race for Democratic Ticket in 2000)

Candidates

Gallup Poll
National
Results

Survey Date

%

2000

Gore

52

Late December

Bradley

38

Candidate labeled in bold won the party's nomination for president.

1992 and 1988 Presidential Elections

Both the 1992 and 1988 races for the Democratic nominations were essentially still wide-open as late as January in each of these two years; the front-runner in the national polls in both instances did not receive his party's nomination.

Although then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had by January 1992 risen from relative obscurity to the point where he was in second place in Gallup's poll of Democrats around the nation, he was still running behind former California Gov. Jerry Brown. Only later did he move to the top of the national poll's list.

In 1988, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart led the Democratic nomination in a mid-January Gallup survey, with 25% support among Democrats. The eventual nominee, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, was only supported by 10% of Democrats in that poll (quite similar to the positioning of several candidates running behind Dean in recent national polling for the 2004 Democratic nomination).

Democratic Nomination for President
(Horse Race for Democratic Ticket in 1988 and 1992)

Candidates

Gallup Poll
National
Results

Survey Date

%

1992

Brown

21

Early January

Clinton

17

Tsongas

6

1988

Hart

25

Mid-January

Jackson

19

Dukakis

10

Candidates labeled in bold won the party's nomination for president.

1984 Presidential Election

The 1984 election was in some ways similar to the situation that prevailed in 2000. Former Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale had been vice president under Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, and thus enjoyed the name identification and goodwill positioning that accrues to someone who has held such a national office. Although then-Ohio Sen. (and former astronaut) John Glenn had made a run for his party's nomination, by Gallup's January 1984 poll, Mondale was substantially ahead of Glenn, and Mondale went on to win his party's nomination (only to lose overwhelmingly to incumbent President Ronald Reagan in that fall's election).

Democratic Nomination for President
(Horse Race for Democratic Ticket in 1984)

Candidates

Gallup Poll
National
Results

Survey Date

%

1984

Mondale

37

Mid-January

Glenn

20

Candidate labeled in bold won the party's nomination for president.

1972 and 1976 Presidential Elections

The years 1972 and 1976 provide some of the most extreme examples of candidates coming from essentially nowhere to win their party's nominations. Both then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter and then-South Dakota Sen. George McGovern were way down the list of Democrats' preferred candidates in Gallup's late December and early January surveys in their respective election years, but both went on to win their party's nominations.

It's important to note that the primary seasons were structured differently in the 1970s than the highly front-end loaded primaries of 2004. However, the fact that obscure candidates such as McGovern and Carter eventually won their party's nomination must provide some solace to Democratic candidates whose national poll numbers this year are also in the single digits at this point.

Democratic Nomination for President
(Horse Race for Democratic Ticket in 1976 and 1972)

Candidates

Gallup Poll
National Results

Survey Date

%

1976

Humphrey

29

Early January

Wallace

20

Carter

4

1972

T. Kennedy

32

Late December

Muskie

25

Humphrey

19

McGovern

5

Candidates labeled in bold won the party's nomination for president.

1952, 1956, 1960, and 1968 Presidential Elections

Prior to 1972, the Democratic nomination process was more focused on the conventions themselves, and the nominee was not always determined by who did the best in the primaries. For example, Hubert Humphrey, who ultimately won his party's nomination at a contentious convention in Chicago, was a late entrant in the nomination fight in 1968 after incumbent President Lyndon Johnson announced in late March that he would not run as evidence mounted of his weakened support as a result of the beating he was taking over Vietnam.

The Democratic front-runners in early Gallup Polls in the 1956 and 1960 elections, however, did end up winning their party's nomination later in the election year. Then-Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy was already supported by more Democrats than then-Illinois Sen. Adlai Stevenson, 32% to 28%, by mid-January 1960. And Stevenson himself had a substantial, 32-point lead over the competition in January 1956 -- a year in which he obtained his party's nomination for the second time, but was drubbed in the November election by incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The situation was significantly different in 1952, when Stevenson wasn't even included in the Gallup surveys early in the year, a time when there were still questions about whether or not incumbent President Harry Truman would run again. Even when Stevenson was included later in the spring of 1952, he received very low vote percentages. However, he went on to secure his party's nomination that summer.

Democratic Nomination for President
(Horse Race for Democratic Ticket, 1952-1968)

Candidates

Gallup Poll
National
Results

Survey Date

%

1968

Humphrey

--

Early January

1960

J.F. Kennedy

32

Mid-January

Stevenson

28

1956

Stevenson

49

Mid-January

Kefauver

17

1952

Truman

36

Early January

Kefauver

21

Barkley

17

Stevenson

--

Candidates labeled in bold won the party's nomination for president.

What all of this suggests, of course, is that much can and does change during the course of the campaign leading up to a national presidential election in the early months of the election year.

Trial heat polls are valuable because they provide a window into the election process, and because they enable interested observers to monitor the impact of events and campaign tactics through the months leading up to the beginning of the actual primaries. But they are not necessarily predictive at this point in the process, especially if no de facto incumbent (a ‘la Gore in 2000 and Mondale in 1984) is in the running.

This means that it is not at all certain that Dean will end up winning his party's presidential nomination -- despite his lead in all national polls of Democrats at this time. To be sure, Dean has certain advantages that are not reflected in the polls, including most particularly his very large war chest that will give him the ability to spend money on advertising and get out the vote efforts in key states in the months ahead. Still, the lessons of history suggest caution, as noted, in assuming that he will automatically be the nominee.

All in all, what we are seeing in the polls now is much like the first or second quarter score in a football game. It certainly gives us clues as to what is going to happen as the game continues to unfold, but it quite often bears little relationship to the final score when the game is ultimately over.

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