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Why January presidential polling numbers can be crucial

January 13, 2016 by Scott Bomboy


Will Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton keep their polling leads, or wind up like Howard Dean in 2004, or Hillary Clinton in 2008? Here’s a look at the recent January trends in the past four contested nomination races.

howarddean2004Last October, Constitution Daily looked at historic presidential polling numbers a year away from Election Day. Three months later, it’s time to look back at the election trend nine months out.

For both periods and both parties, we looked at the current races compared with the past four contested presidential primaries: the Republicans in 2012, both parties in 2008 and the Democrats in 2004.

And if you are the current front runners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there’s cause for confidence – or evidence for concern based on the volatile January polling period. In all, only two of the four polling leaders in those January periods wound up as their party’s nominee for the general election.

In 2012, GOP polling front runner Mitt Romney needed to fend off several challenges after grabbing the polling lead from Next Gingrich. And in 2008, John McCain grabbed a big lead in late January, while Barack Obama made up ground on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front runner.

And then there was the 2004 Democratic leader in January, Howard Dean, who imploded after a famous post-Iowa caucus speech on January 19.

Here’s a look back at the numbers:

2016 Republican national primary polls

Real Clear Politics Poll Averages (1/12/2016): Donald Trump 34%; Ted Cruz 20%; Marco Rubio 11%; Ben Carson 9.5%; Chris Christie 4.3%, Jeb Bush 3.8%; Rand Paul 2.8%; Carly Fiorina 2%;

CBS/New York Times Poll (10/25/2015): Ben Carson 26%; Donald Trump 22%; Marco Rubio 8%; Jeb Bush 7%; Carly Fiorina 7%; Ted Cruz 4%; Mike Huckabee 4%; John Kasich 4%; Rand Paul 4%

After a brief Carson lead last fall, Trump has reclaimed his place as the national Republican front runner. Trump assumed the polling lead in July 2015 from Bush.

2016 Democratic national primary polls

Real Clear Politics Poll Averages (1/12/2016): Hillary Clinton 48.3%; Bernie Sanders 35.5%; Martin O’Malley 3.8%.

NBC/WSJ Poll (10/18/2015): Hillary Clinton 49%; Bernie Sanders 29%; Joe Biden 15%; Jim Webb 2%; Martin O’Malley 1%.

Sanders has picked up about 6 points since October 2015 but Clinton retains the same leading number. Clinton had a smaller leading margin over Barack Obama at the same point in the 2008 presidential nomination campaign (see below). Biden and Webb have dropped from the nomination hunt.

2012 Republican national primary polls

Washington Post/ABC News Poll (1/15/2012): Mitt Romney* 35%; Newt Gingrich 17%; Ron Paul 16%; Rick Santorum 13%; Rick Perry 9%; Herman Cain 0%; Michele Bachman 0%;

Washington Post/ABC News Poll (11/3/2011): Mitt Romney* 24%; Herman Cain 23% ; Rick Perry 13%; Newt Gingrich 12%; Ron Paul 8%; Michele Bachman 4%; Rick Santorum 1%.

In January 2012, Romney had grabbed the lead back from Gingrich and was about to fend off a final challenge from Santorum, Gingrich and Paul on his way to the GOP nomination.

2008 Republican national primary polls

Washington Post/ABC News (1/12/2008): John McCain* 28%; Mike Huckabee 20%; Mitt Romney 19%; Fred Thompson 8%; Ron Paul 3%

Princeton Survey (11/1/2007): Rudy Giuliani 30%; Fred Thompson 15%; John McCain* 14%; Mitt Romney 12%; Mike Huckabee 7%

In January 2008, McCain grabbed the national polling lead at this point and he took an insurmountable lead late in the month. Giuliani was the GOP national polling front runner for most of 2007, with Thompson and McCain has his closest competitors. The former New York Mayor kept his lead until December, when he was overtaken by two new polling front runners, McCain and Huckabee.

2008 Democratic national primary polls

Washington Post/ABC News (1/12/2008): Hillary Clinton 42%; Barack Obama* 37%; John Edwards 11%.

Zogby Poll (11/17/2007): Hillary Clinton 38%; Barack Obama* 27%; John Edwards 13%; Bill Richardson 4%.

By mid-January 2008, Clinton was still the Democratic front runner in national polling but Obama was starting to close the gap. In February, Obama became the only other significant contender with Edwards out of the race, and he started catching up to Clinton early in the month. In March, he was splitting most poll matchups against Clinton. Obama eventually won a hard-fought Democratic nomination.

2004 Democratic national primary polls

Time-CNN (1/15/2004): Howard Dean 19%; Wesley Clark 14%; John Kerry* 9%; John Edwards 9%; Joe Lieberman 9%; Dick Gephardt 8%; Al Sharpton 6%;

Pew Research (12/4/2003): Wesley Clark 15%; Howard Dean 15%; Joe Lieberman 12%; Dick Gephardt 12%; John Kerry* 6%; John Edwards 5%; Al Sharpton 5%; Carol Mosely Braun 4%.

The wild 2004 Democratic primary race saw Dean grab the lead from Clark in early December 2013, and widening his polling numbers until late January. Dean lost to Kerry and Edwards in the Iowa Caucus on January 19 and his famous “Dean Scream” concession speech ended his reign as the front runner. Kerry used his momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire to take a commanding lead during the rest of the primary season.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

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