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Where the Election Stands: June 2007

by Frank Newport, Jeffrey M. Jones, Lydia Saad and Joseph Carroll


PRINCETON, NJ -- The 2008 presidential election has gotten off to an unprecedented early start. Many candidates were off and running as the year began. How much has all of the extremely early campaigning for president at this stage of the 2008 race affected voter preferences? On the Democratic side, not much. On the Republican side, not much more.

The Fight for the Nominations

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton established her lead among the Democratic candidates early in the process. Since January there have been two occasions when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who has been in second place during most of 2007, came within striking distance of Clinton in Gallup Polls, but she has otherwise maintained her lead, which has ranged from 9 to 19 percentage points. In Gallup's latest poll, conducted June 11-14, 2007, Clinton leads Obama by 11 points among Democrats (33% to 21%).

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (a formally announced candidate) and former Vice President Al Gore (who has not ruled out a bid but has said he has no plans to run at this time) have been competitive for third place among Democrats. Each has the support of at least 10% of Democrats, not too far behind Obama, but there has been little indication that either Gore or Edwards (let alone the other Democrats who will campaign for the nomination) are making significant enough gains to challenge Clinton.

The Republican race has seen a jockeying of candidates for second place, while there has been little serious threat to the frontrunner, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, since January. Giuliani emerged as the GOP leader in early February, after having been closely matched with Arizona Sen. John McCain earlier, and has held that position ever since. Both Clinton and Giuliani have seen the size of their lead in their respective primary races diminish since earlier this year, especially in the case of Giuliani, whose support level just recently fell below 30% -- well below his peak of 44% in March.

Another change in the GOP field has been the recent increase in support for former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson since his emergence in March as a possible candidate. Thompson scored 12% of the vote the first time Gallup included him in the Republican trial heats, and in the latest June poll, Thompson receives 19% of the GOP vote, earning him a tie for second place with McCain.

Support for McCain has hovered around 20% since March, a clear change from January when he had 27% and nearly tied with Giuliani for first place. He has not faded dramatically, however.

In recent weeks, support for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has mostly stayed below 10% nationally despite his fundraising prowess and his strong showing in several early primary state polls. Support for former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich -- who has said he will not decide for sure whether or not he is running until the fall -- is also in this range. None of the other potential or announced candidates in the Republican Party has so far received more than a few percentage points in Gallup's pre-election primary nomination polls.

Eight in 10 Democrats nationwide, compared with only 6 in 10 Republicans, are satisfied with the choice of candidates for their respective party's nomination. This relative lack of satisfaction on the GOP side could be seen as a sign of encouragement for unannounced Republicans such as Thompson and Gingrich to officially enter the race. The finding that there is a high level of satisfaction among rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party may suggest less of an opportunity for Gore if he were to decide to enter the Democratic field.

Early Measures on the November 2008 Outcome

Seventeen months before the nation chooses its next president, most signs from the political environment favor the Democratic Party. The Democrats have a clear advantage in party identification among the voting-age population, Americans view the Democratic Party more favorably than the Republican Party, and the basic indicators of the nation's mood are quite negative -- something that typically bodes well for the party not currently occupying the White House. Thus, not surprisingly, when asked for their generic party preference for president earlier this year (April 2007), Americans were much more likely to say they would rather see the "Democratic Party's candidate" win the 2008 election rather than the "Republican Party's candidate." The specific Democratic presidential candidates have capitalized on that underlying advantage when matched up against the specific Republican candidates in trial heat questions for the 2008 election.

McCain and Giuliani would appear to present the toughest match-ups for the Democrats at this point. Giuliani is the most positively rated candidate of either party, with a 57% favorable rating in the latest Gallup survey. And while McCain is not rated as favorably overall (47%), he is potent because he has impressive appeal across political parties -- rated much more positively than negatively by independents, and only slightly more negatively than positively by Democrats. The other Republican contenders, Thompson and Romney, are still unknown to roughly half of Americans and thus are not as well positioned to compete against a well-known Democrat.

Despite Giuliani's broad popularity, the three Democrats are quite competitive with him in national test elections. (As noted, this is likely due to the underlying strength of the Democratic Party over the Republican Party as seen in the trial heats and other public opinion polling questions.) All three Democrats garner 50% of support among registered voters when pitted against Giuliani, with Giuliani getting 46% against Clinton and 45% against both Edwards and Obama. Again, none of these gaps in favor of the Democrats are statistically significant.

Gallup test elections matching McCain against each of the three leading Democrats are too close to call, though Edwards' 6-point lead just barely misses attaining statistical significance. Clinton has a 3-point edge over the Arizona senator and Obama has a 2-point advantage.

Each of the Democratic candidates have statistically significant leads when up against Romney. Edwards leads Romney by 29 percentage points (61% to 32%), Obama leads him by 21 points (57% to 36%), and Clinton leads him by 13 points (53% to 40%).

2008 Election Issues

The situation in Iraq is overwhelmingly seen as the most important problem facing the country today, and is the top issue Americans at this point say they will take into account in their 2008 presidential vote. The degree to which Iraq will continue to dominate the election by next year is unknowable. A scenario in which U.S. troops have begun to withdraw from Iraq by 2008 is not out of the question, nor is a scenario in which the recent "surge" in troops is seen as a success. Each of these would significantly affect the presidential campaign.

Terrorism will probably continue to be a strong underlying issue in the campaign -- Americans may not talk or even think about it much, but concern can be easily activated, particularly if there is another major terrorist event. The economy is almost always a factor in an election. Consumer views of the economy became more positive in January, but are much more negative in the latest June poll, possibly because of gas prices. Healthcare is a rising concern among Americans and has been a major issue in past election campaigns. Immigration will likely remain a campaign issue unless and until Congress passes legislation to address the subject of illegal immigration. Immigration ranks second behind the war in Iraq in Gallup's latest update on the most important problem facing the nation.

Early Nomination Polls as Predictors

Poll results at this phase -- six months before the first primaries and caucuses -- are valuable measures of candidate strength and can have an important impact on the campaign. At the same time, the current standings of the candidates are not -- nor should they be expected to be -- a direct predictor of what unfolds in the election year itself.

Such volatility in the course of voter preferences has historically been true for the Democratic nomination in particular. Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter, and George McGovern were all virtual unknowns who rose from obscurity to take their party's nomination. Republicans have, on the other hand, been more likely to settle on a nominee early, and stick with him.

Here's a look at where the election stood at this point -- June during the year before the election year -- in the five previous presidential elections:

  • In June 2003, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman outpolled the pack of Democratic hopefuls, with 20% of Democrats supporting Lieberman for their party's 2004 presidential nomination. Fifteen percent supported Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, while 13% supported the eventual nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. No other Democratic candidate received double-digit support that month.
  • George W. Bush and Al Gore, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in 2000, led their party's nomination ballots in June 1999. Gore had an average of 64% of Democrats supporting him for the Democratic nomination that month, with his main challenger former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley at just 28% support. Bush averaged 53% support in June 1999. The only other Republican with double-digit support then was Elizabeth Dole, with 11%.
  • In June 1995, Bob Dole, the Republican Party's eventual nominee, led Gallup's Republican nomination ballot by a wide margin over any other candidate. Fifty-one percent of Republicans supported Dole for their party's nomination at that time.
  • In the summer of 1991, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo was at the top of the polls for the Democratic nomination, with 22% of registered Democrats' support, followed closely by Jesse Jackson at 18%. Bill Clinton, who eventually won the party's nomination and the general election in 1992, only garnered 5% of the vote among registered Democrats in August 1991.
  • In June 1987, 39% of Republicans said they supported eventual Republican nominee and winner George H.W. Bush for their party's nomination. Bob Dole was supported by 21% of Republicans at that time. On the Democratic side, Jesse Jackson had 18% of the votes among Democrats to lead the party nomination at that time, while eventual winner Michael Dukakis had 11%. By then, early front-runner Gary Hart had withdrawn from the field before re-entering later that year.

  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.

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