PRINCETON, NJ -- The first official vote in the 2008 presidential primaries will be cast in early January, just a little more than three months away. This presidential campaign has been one of the longest in recent history. At this point in the race, candidates have been actively campaigning for almost a year; a long series of debates has already been held; and voters, particularly in key early primary states, have become used to the type of intense campaign rhetoric usually heard only much later in the campaign process. The process began so early this year that some candidates officially announced they were running, campaigned furiously, and then withdrew -- all before the first caucus or primary has been held.
Gallup has conducted more than 24,000 interviews since January 2007 relating to the election, and an analysis of the trends evident in the data suggest certain patterns that in some instances give us an excellent indication of how the race is likely to shape up.
Political Landscape Favorable for the Democrats
The political environment in which the 2008 presidential election will take place has been and continues to be favorable for the Democratic ticket, whomever it will finally include.
In a broad sense, the American public’s assessment of the state of the nation continues to be negative. Such a negative evaluation usually results in Americans wanting to hold the party in the White House accountable, suggesting the possibility that the Republican presidential candidate -- although not an incumbent himself -- will face an uphill battle in getting elected unless conditions change between now and next fall.
These mood and state of the nation indicators include the following:
o President George W. Bush's job approval rating is currently at 32% (according to the Oct. 12-14 USAToday/Gallup poll), and has been below 40% since September 2006. The last two quarterly averages for Bush job approval have been among the lowest in Gallup Poll history.
o It is possible that Bush’s approval ratings may recover between now and November 2008, but at the moment, the significant potential exists for the president’s problems to negatively affect the GOP presidential ticket.
o Only 26% of Americans say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country at this time, while 72% are dissatisfied. Although higher than the record low of 12% on this measure, this low satisfaction level again suggests potential trouble for the GOP.
o Just 33% of Americans describe economic conditions in the country today as "excellent" or "good," while 23% say they are poor. Also, the majority (66%) say the economy is getting worse rather than better (23%).
o Historically, a perceived negative economic environment has been a key indicator of trouble for an incumbent president seeking re-election, including Ford in 1976, Carter in 1980, and Bush in 1992. The current president Bush is not seeking re-election, but the economic situation -- if it continues to be perceived as negatively next year -- will certainly present challenges to Republican candidates attempting to hold the White House.
o The No. 1 problem facing the nation today, according to Gallup Polls, is the war in Iraq. By all measures, the American public perceives that the war in Iraq is going badly, and was ill-conceived initially. The public is also more likely to perceive that the Democrats would do a better job on Iraq than the Republicans. Hence it would appear that the Iraq situation could be used to the Democratic candidate’s advantage next year, although ambivalence on the part of the public about what to do now in Iraq may make it difficult for the Democratic nominee to stake out a clear position on this issue.
o A number of indicators suggest that the image of Republicans -- taken as a whole -- is in poor shape at this time. Fifty-nine percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party and just 38% have a favorable one. At the same time, 53% of Americans rate the Democratic Party favorably and 43% unfavorably. Americans have rated the Democrats more positively than the Republicans since April 2005 (by at least one point in each poll over the past two and a half years).
Thus, it is not surprising to find Democrats faring well in “generic ballot” matchups against Republicans for the 2008 presidential election. For instance, in an Oct. 12-16 CBS News Poll, 48% of voters said they would “probably” vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, and only 33% for the Republican candidate. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted Oct. 12-14 finds the “generic” Democrat ahead of the “generic” Republican by 13 points.
However, the election is much closer when specific candidates are matched in hypothetical trial-heat ballots. In fact, Democratic candidates hold statistically significant leads at this point over only the lesser-known Republican candidates (Thompson and Romney). The trial heats are essentially tied in matchups of Clinton or Obama versus Giuliani or McCain.
The Oct. 12-14 CNN/Opinion Research poll finds 49% of voters supporting New York Sen. Hillary Clinton to win next year's election, and 47% supporting Rudy Giuliani.
A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll from Oct. 9-10 shows a close race between Clinton and Giuliani (47% to 43%), and Clinton and John McCain (47% to 44%). Clinton performs much better against Mitt Romney (50% to 38%) and Fred Thompson (50% to 38%).
An early October National Public Radio poll has Giuliani in an essential dead heat with both Clinton (47% to 44%) and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (44% to 44%). Both Democratic candidates do better against Thompson.
The Democratic Race: Conditions Auspicious for Sen. Clinton to Win
Gallup’s 2007 national presidential polling strongly points to Clinton winning the 2008 Democratic nomination. Barring something unusual or otherwise unexpected, she is well positioned for the 2008 Democratic primaries. Obama has not been an insignificant rival: he came within single digits of tying Clinton for the lead at two points this spring. But he has recently lost ground and is now in the weakest position relative to Clinton that he has been in all year.
No other announced or potential Democratic candidate has come close to threatening Clinton’s front-runner status since the campaign began, including former Vice President Al Gore and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
When 2008 is history and one looks retrospectively at where the race stands today, the key factors forecasting Clinton’s success will likely be the following:
Clinton Has Had a Consistent Run at the Top
Clinton has led the Democratic pack in every Gallup Poll conducted between November 2006 and October 2007. For most of this time, Clinton has led Obama by a double-digit margin.
Clinton’s lead over Obama has expanded to nearly 30 points in Gallup’s latest poll, conducted Oct. 12-14: 50% vs. 21%.
Gallup polling on Democratic nominations going back to the 1972 election shows that, by historical standards, a lead of even 20 points is large for Democratic candidates. The two candidates who held this distinction in the fall months before the election year (Gore in 1999 and Walter Mondale in 1983) eventually won the Democratic nomination.
Importantly, two-thirds of Democrats who prefer Clinton for their party’s nomination say they are certain to vote for her in the primaries, a higher percentage than is found for supporters of the other Democratic candidates.
Clinton ’s Support Runs Deep
Clinton holds a commanding lead among nearly every major subgroup of potential Democratic primary voters. Some of her strongest showings are among women, nonwhites, those in lower-income households, those with less formal education, and Southerners.
Clinton Is Broadly Popular Among Democrats
Clinton enjoys high favorable ratings in the Democratic Party that extend well beyond the 40% to 50% of Democrats typically naming her as their top choice for the nomination. Eighty-two percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners have a favorable view of the former first lady, while only 16% have an unfavorable view of her. Obama (70% favorable among Democrats) and Edwards (63% favorable) lag behind Clinton on this measure, in part because fewer Democrats are familiar with them.
Democrats also rate Clinton as the candidate most likely to defeat the Republican in the general election -- a key perceptual advantage given that primary voters are trying to distinguish among candidates with largely similar issue positions.
Additionally, 64% of Democrats say they would vote for Clinton enthusiastically in November 2008 should she be the party’s nominee. Forty-nine percent say this about Obama and 41% about Edwards.
Clinton’s Image Strong on Top Policy Issues
According to the Sept. 24-27, 2007, Gallup Panel survey, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents choose Clinton as the candidate best able to handle a wide variety of national issues.
In fact, even when given the choice of the top three Democratic candidates -- Clinton, Obama, and Edwards -- an outright majority of Democrats say Clinton would do the best job on 6 out of 17 issues measured in the poll. This includes some of the major nuts-and-bolts policy issues Americans generally rate as most important to their vote for federal offices: healthcare, the economy, and education. It also includes two of the leading values issues in today’s culture: abortion and gay marriage.
Clinton is preferred by a solid plurality of Democrats on an additional seven issues. Among these are terrorism and the situation in Iraq -- two of the most hotly debated issues of the election, as well as potentially crucial to voters. She also holds sizable leads on taxes and energy, and somewhat smaller leads on crime, immigration, and being commander in chief of the military. Obama is preferred by a majority of Democrats on only one issue: race relations. He also leads Clinton and Edwards with a sizable plurality as the candidate best able to inspire Americans.
Clinton’s nomination seems almost inevitable, but Ted Kennedy (1980) and Gary Hart (1988) provide some caution that under extreme circumstances, a strong Democratic candidate can blow a big lead. Kennedy’s and Hart’s big leads came much earlier in the campaign, however. Of note as well: Mondale saw his large lead from the fall of 1983 disappear after Hart’s win in the 1984 New Hampshire primary, before Mondale recovered and went on to secure the nomination.
Some have speculated that Americans might be uncomfortable with Bill Clinton returning to the White House after scandal marred his presidency, but polling data suggests that is not the case -- at least not now.
The Republican presidential nomination race at this point looks to be much more competitive than the Democratic contest, and atypical compared with past GOP nomination campaigns.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has held a statistically significant lead in every Gallup national preference poll since February, averaging a 12-point lead over former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson the past three months. Arizona Sen. John McCain is third, but usually just a few points behind Thompson. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has not gained much traction in the national polls. In the most recent Gallup Poll, just 10% of Republicans chose him for the Republican presidential nomination. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has seen his support pick up a little in the past few months, but he remains in single digits. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback’s departure from the race -- announced this past weekend -- will almost certainly have little direct effect, as he consistently polled at only 1% or 2% of the vote.
Romney’s campaign team is banking on an initially strong performance in key early caucus and primary states to overcome their candidate’s relatively poor showing among Republicans nationwide. Romney in fact does lead all recent polls in the key early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire (more comfortably in Iowa than New Hampshire). Huckabee also outperforms his national numbers in Iowa, and is currently vying with Giuliani and Thompson for second place in that state.
Fifty-one percent of Republicans nationwide say they would vote enthusiastically for Giuliani next November should he be the party’s nominee. McCain, Thompson, and Romney are not generating the same level of enthusiasm among the party base. (The level of enthusiasm toward Giuliani is significantly lower than that generated by Democratic front-runner Clinton.)
Republicans continue to rate Giuliani more positively than his leading competitors on Gallup’s favorability measure, but he by no means dominates on this measure. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans and Republican leaners have a favorable opinion of Giuliani, compared with 61% for McCain, 53% for Thompson, and 41% for Romney. Romney’s and Thompson’s lower ratings are due in large part to the fact that they are not as well-known as Giuliani (and McCain) -- roughly one in three Republicans do not have an opinion of Thompson or Romney. For example, Giuliani’s +40 net favorable rating (67% favorable – 27% unfavorable) is roughly the same as the lesser-known Thompson’s +36 (53% favorable – 17% unfavorable). Giuliani’s favorable rating among Republicans has also declined -- it was 74% as recently as August and has been in the 80% range.
Religious Republicans’ dissatisfaction with the party’s field of presidential candidates has been a major story line during the campaign. There have been many questions about Giuliani’s conservative credentials, and he does not fare as well among religious Republicans as he does among less religious party supporters, though he remains the leader among both groups. Also, Romney’s Mormon faith is proving to be a significant obstacle in his ability to appeal to churchgoing Protestants -- a key Republican constituency -- who view him about as negatively as positively.
Beyond the size of Clinton’s lead versus the size of Giuliani’s, evidence that the Republican nomination contest is more unsettled comes from the fact that a majority of Republicans in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll said they may change their minds about voting for their currently preferred candidate, while a majority of Democrats said they were certain to support their chosen candidate. Republicans have expressed less satisfaction with their field of presidential candidates than have the Democrats throughout the campaign.
In past presidential nomination campaigns, Republicans have typically coalesced around a candidate early in the campaign and that candidate has usually won the nomination without much competition. Every Republican presidential nominee since 1972 has led his challengers by 20 or more points at some time during the year before the election. All but Gerald Ford in 1975 and George H. W. Bush in 1987 reached 50% support on Gallup's national ballot the year before the election. Giuliani has yet to reach 50% (his high was 49% in March), but he did lead the field of Republican challengers by better than 20 points in March and April of this year. Giuliani departs from past Republican history from the standpoint that in most cases the leading candidate (and eventual nominee) had a much larger lead during the autumn, before the primaries began, than Giuliani does now.
Early General Election Polls as Predictors
Since World War II, there have been only three elections that replaced a president who had served two four-year terms -- in 1960, 1988, and 2000. (In 1952 and 1968, the incumbents were eligible for re-election after serving less than two full terms but declined to run.) Given the small number and differing outcomes of similar elections, the historical data do not offer much guidance as to what might happen in 2008. But the data do show that it has not been unusual for the party out of power to lead for much of the year before the "open-seat" election.
George W. Bush held a statistically significant lead over Gore in almost every trial heat poll conducted in 1999. Republican Bush went on to win a disputed victory over Gore in the Electoral College to replace departing Democrat Bill Clinton.
In 1987, Democratic front-runner Hart led the elder George Bush for the first several months of the year. Bush took over the lead in late May after news of Hart's extramarital affair derailed his campaign, and Bush polled better than Hart, Jackson, and Cuomo in late 1987. Bush relinquished the lead the following spring to his eventual challenger, Michael Dukakis, before moving back ahead after the Republican convention and eventually being elected by a comfortable margin to succeed Republican Ronald Reagan as president.
In 1959, the various Democratic candidates led for much of the first part of the year, but the tide shifted in the Republicans' favor for much of the latter part of that year's presidential preference polling. Democrat John Kennedy won a razor-thin victory over Republican Richard Nixon the following year in the contest to succeed Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national samples of approximately 1,000 adults each, aged 18 and older. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.