PRINCETON, NJ -- The wide-open battle for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination -- with nearly a three-way tie among Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney -- is quite different from the typical pattern observed in past Republican nomination contests. In Gallup polling since 1952, Republican Party nomination races always featured a clear front-runner at this stage of the campaign, and in almost all cases, that front-runner ultimately won the nomination.
Between 1952 and 2008, there were nine open races for the Republican presidential nomination -- that is, years when a sitting Republican president was not seeking re-election. Additionally, in 1976, incumbent President Gerald Ford faced a strong challenge from Ronald Reagan. Thus, since 1952, the Republicans have had 10 competitive races for the presidential nomination.
Across these 10 elections, 2008 is the only year in which the eventual nominee, John McCain, achieved front-runner status relatively late in the campaign cycle. In the other nine, the nominee rose to the top of the pack in the year prior to the election, and in eight of those elections, the nominee was the front-runner by March.
Few Late Bloomers in GOP Primary History
2008: Eventual GOP nominee McCain ran a distant second to Rudy Giuliani in Gallup's early 2007 Republican preference tests, including by 25% to 42% in February. Giuliani maintained an impressive lead through the summer and fall. However, the former New York mayor's strategy of essentially ceding the early primary states, particularly New Hampshire and Iowa, to focus on Florida and the big Super Tuesday states cost him media attention -- and potentially, credibility with voters -- at a crucial time. By mid-January 2008, both McCain and Mike Huckabee were beating him. McCain rapidly gained momentum after winning the New Hampshire primary, moving ahead of Huckabee by mid-January, after which he quickly gathered the momentum needed to solidify his victory.
2000: George W. Bush dominated the potential Republican presidential field throughout 1999, leading Elizabeth Dole 42% to 22% in a January party preference test, by 52% to 20% in March, and by even wider margins later in the year until Dole dropped out in the fall. McCain ran second to Bush for the remainder of 1999, but continuously trailed by more than 3 to 1.
1996: Bob Dole led former Vice President Dan Quayle 38% to 17% in February 1995. Then in April, after Quayle had removed himself from consideration, Gallup showed Dole leading second-place contender Phil Gramm 46% to 13%. And although Gallup's Republican test elections expanded to contain up to nine candidates, Dole faced no significant competition throughout 1995.
1988: Vice President George H.W. Bush enjoyed strong front-runner status for his party's nomination throughout 1987. In January 1987, Bush led his most serious competitor, Dole, by 33% to 14%, and maintained a roughly 2-to-1 lead over Dole the rest of the year.
1980: Reagan's bid for the Republican nomination in 1976 paid off in 1979, when he emerged as the front-runner for the 1980 Republican nomination. Although George H.W. Bush came the closest to actually toppling Reagan in the early primaries, Reagan's closest competition in 1979 Gallup polls for support among Republicans nationwide came from Gerald Ford, who never formally entered the race. In January 1979, Reagan led Ford by 31% to 26%. Republicans' preferences for the two were about tied from May through July, but by August, Reagan was up, 36% to 22%, and he maintained a strong lead through the end of the year. When the 1979 trend is re-configured by substituting Ford supporters' second choice, Reagan's position looks even stronger -- he beat John Connally and Howard Baker by more than 20 points in each poll.
1976: Although Ford ran in 1976 as the sitting president, the unique circumstances that put him in the Oval Office and the serious challenge he faced from Reagan made this presidential incumbent year a truly competitive one. Nevertheless, Ford was the odds-on favorite from the earliest Gallup GOP primary polls, leading Reagan 34% to 22% in March 1975, and in every Gallup Republican trial heat thereafter, except November 1975.
1968: Richard Nixon was a strong front-runner for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination from Gallup's first primary preference survey on the race in January 1967. In February, Nixon led George Romney, 41% to 31%. He continued to lead by about 10 to 15 percentage points through the spring, and by even greater margins later in the year after Romney blamed his one-time support for the Vietnam War on "brainwashing."
1964: Barry Goldwater did not lead his rivals for the 1964 Republican nod in Gallup's earliest 1963 polls. Rather, Nelson Rockefeller was the dominant Republican front-runner, as he was in a February poll, when he led Goldwater 45% to 19%. By mid-May, however, Goldwater established a slim lead, 35% to 30%, and continued to outpace Rockefeller into October. In November, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. was added to Gallup's Republican trial heat polls, further splitting the race. This was followed by a bruising primary season that left Goldwater statistically tied with three other candidates in Gallup's final preference poll before the convention.
1960: When Nixon ran for the Republican nomination in 1960, he did so as the sitting vice president. Rockefeller and Lodge (the latter never announced his candidacy) proved weak potential rivals, and Nixon maintained a double-digit lead throughout Gallup's frequent tracking of the race. Nixon led Rockefeller by 56% to 23% in March 1959, and his lead only expanded during the year.
1952: Dwight D. Eisenhower was a strong contender for the Republican Party nomination (as well as for the Democratic nomination) as soon as his name appeared on Gallup's Republican preference ballots in March 1951. Eisenhower's strongest opponent for the Republican nomination was Robert Taft, but he led Taft 38% to 18% in early March 1951 and by 30% to 22% in May.
Winning a presidential nomination is never assured, and every eventual nominee encounters competition and threats of varying degrees on his or her way to the convention. However, looking retrospectively at the 10 open or competitive Republican races since 1952, early Republican front-runners have had very good odds, prevailing in 8 of these. Additionally, although Goldwater did not lead the earliest Gallup Republican preference polls in 1963, he was leading by the spring of that year and thus comes close to fitting the pattern. The only nominee to truly break the mold was McCain, running a distant second to Giuliani throughout 2007. However, by virtue of his strong second-place ranking by the time Giuliani dropped out of the race in late January, McCain was able to capitalize on Giuliani's departure (and endorsement), springing ahead of his remaining rivals.
History thus provides no guidelines for how today's highly fragmented Republican race might play out, or for when a strong front-runner is likely to emerge, or who it will be. If the race remains close throughout 2011, it may also create unfamiliar political and fundraising dynamics for the national party. As of today, Huckabee is supported by 18% of Republicans and Republican leaners, while Palin and Romney are each favored by 16%. However, it is quite possible one of the three, or perhaps a different candidate, will break out from the pack before too long, particularly given that some of these candidates may decide not to run. And as the field is clarified, certain candidates may benefit more than others.