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Republican Front-Runner One Year Before Presidential Election Almost Always Wins Nomination

Republican Front-Runner One Year Before Presidential Election Almost Always Wins Nomination

Democratic situation much more unsettled historically


PRINCETON, NJ -- Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore continue to be dominant leaders in the races for their respective parties' presidential nominations. Bush now has an enormous lead of over 50 points over his nearest competitor, Arizona Senator John McCain, and Gore leads former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley by over 20 percentage points. Both Bush's and Gore's national leads have generally remained strong throughout the year.

Some polls in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, however, show that Bush and Gore could be in significantly tighter races than is the case nationally. A good deal of press coverage is being given to the challenges Bush and Gore are facing from John McCain and Bill Bradley, respectively, based on polls taken in these states. The assumption is that strong showings by competitors to Bush and Gore in early primaries can have a multiplicative, domino effect, changing the voters' preferences in subsequent states, until in a cascading snowball effect, the front-runners could end up losing the nominations.

History in Many Ways Is Best Available Guide
It is worthwhile to examine the historical record in this regard. There have been 12 presidential elections from the 1950s through 1996, and most of the Gallup polls conducted in the fall before these election years measured the same type of national sentiments being measured in the fall of 1999. By comparing theseone-year-out pollswith the ultimate nominee the following year, we get a sense of the nature of the relationship between what the voters say to pollsters in the fall before the election and what actually happens as the primary and convention season unfolds in the election year itself.

Eventual Republican Nominee Usually Ahead in Polls Conducted Year Before Election
There is one immediately apparent conclusion. The Democrats have been much more unsettled over the past 50 years than have the Republicans. An analysis of elections since 1952 shows that in almost every case, the man to whom Republican voters were giving the highest poll total in the fall before the election ended up becoming the eventual GOP nominee, and in no situation did a strong front-runner go on to lose the nomination.

The Republicans have first and foremost been able to take advantage of the incumbency factor over the past 50 years. In each of the years 1956, 1972, 1976, 1984 and 1992, there was an incumbent Republican president running for re-election, and despite challenges in some of these years, each of the incumbents -- Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush, respectively -- easily got their party's nomination in the summer of the election year (even though Ford and Bush, of course, went down to defeat in the November general election). Additionally, in 1960 and in 1988 there were incumbent vice presidents -- Nixon and Bush -- who moved fairly easily on to their party's nomination.

Thus, there have actually been only relatively few elections in which there was no incumbent Republican president or vice president who was the natural heir to the nomination:

  • The least predictive pre-election polls were in the fall of 1963. Barry Goldwater, the eventual winner of the Republican nomination, was very much in the thick of the race in polling conducted in 1963, but was not dominant. Goldwater led Nelson Rockefeller in the early fall polls, and fell slightly behind Richard Nixon in late fall Gallup polls.
  • In the fall of 1967, Richard Nixon -- who got the Republican nomination the next year -- was the leader in all polls, pulling in 40% or more of the Republican vote, way ahead of the three other contenders Gallup included in trial heat questions: Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan and George Romney.
  • In 1979, the leader in the Republican polls was Ronald Reagan, who ended up getting the nomination. Reagan had significant competition, including former President Gerald Ford, Howard Baker, John Connally and George Bush, but Reagan led in all fall polls.
  • And, in 1995, in pre-election polls leading up to the 1996 election, Bob Dole, the eventual Republican nominee, was significantly ahead in fall polls.

In short, although there have been years in which there was sharp competition for the Republican nomination, there has never been a situation in which a candidate was consistently leading in Gallup polls one year before the election and did not go on to win the nomination. The closest to that situation occurred in 1963, when Richard Nixon was slightly ahead of Barry Goldwater in some polls, but Nixon did not have a strong, nor a consistent, lead.

This year, George W. Bush has been a consistent 50+ percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor in the pre-election polls -- competition that has included a former vice president, a popular and well-known woman, a candidate who won the New Hampshire primary in 1996, and the publisher of one of the country's best-known business magazines. Bush's continuing ability to outdistance these contenders in the national polls, and the Republicans' historical track record of sticking to the person they favor at this point one year before the election, would suggest that a scenario in which George W. Bush ultimately loses the Republican nomination would be unprecedented.

Democratic Nominee Often Not Known Until Winter and Spring of Election Year
It has been a different story on the Democratic side, however. Only in 1964, 1980 and 1996 was there an incumbent Democrat in the White House seeking re-election. In all other years there was a fight for the nomination, and in many of those years the eventual nominee was still obscure and behind in fall polls conducted one year before the election.

  • In 1959 John F. Kennedy was locked in a tight race with Adlai Stevenson in Gallup polls conducted in September, October and November, and was by no means dominant in these fall polls.
  • In 1971, George McGovern was a single-digit minor player in fall polling. Ted Kennedy, Edmund Muskie and Hubert H. Humphrey all led McGovern in polls conducted in November and December.
  • In 1975, Jimmy Carter was relatively unknown and low in the ranking produced by Gallup polls. Ted Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace all led the Georgia governor in fall polls.
  • In 1983 the eventual Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, had moved ahead of Ohio Senator John Glenn in fall Gallup polling, but was not above 50% of the Democratic vote.
  • Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was beginning to show up in the polls in the fall of 1987, but was still trailing Jesse Jackson and had poll numbers only in the teens.
  • And, at this point in 1991, Bill Clinton was an obscure governor of Arkansas. In fall polling in that year, five other candidates got higher totals than Clinton in the polls; the leader was former California governor Jerry Brown.

In short,one-year-out pollshave been of little use in predicting the eventual Democratic nominee in many of the elections in the second half of this century. At the same time, it is important to note that the Al Gore situation this year is unlike that of any of the other post-1950 elections. In none of the Democratically volatile years -- 1959, 1971, 1975, 1983, 1987, and 1991 -- was there a strong candidate who was 20 points or more ahead in the polls a year out and who went on to lose. The most similar elections were in 1975, when Ted Kennedy had an 11-point lead over his nearest competitor, and in 1991, when Jerry Brown had a 9-point lead in one Gallup poll. Gore's lead over Bill Bradley this year has at one stage been as low as 11 points, but has averaged a much more robust 20 points plus in late October and November polling. And, it is important to remember that it has been very rare in the past half century for a candidate to be above 50% of the Democratic vote at this point in time. Gore's primary challenger, Bill Bradley, can thus pin his hopes on mimicking the ultimate success of such come-from-behind candidates as George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton, but the situation is different enough this year to suggest that this may be a difficult scenario to pull off.

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