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Year-out polls don’t always predict success for presidential candidates

October 28, 2015 by Scott Bomboy


Will Ben Carson be the next President, or the next Howard Dean? Or does Hillary Clinton have more in common with Rudy Giuliani when it comes to polling results?


11846753_10153522454338236_3588002410544402767_n (1)National match-up polls that show the horse race leaders for the Democratic and Republican nominations can be a tricky business. Recently, the originator of presidential polling, Gallup, said it would not take part in any polling about the prospective candidates during the primary season. Pew Research Center is also pulling back on primary-season polling.


That isn’t stopping major media outlets and other polling operations from issuing regular national surveys about the latest favorites. To be sure, how the candidates fare in debates and in the actual state primaries will determine the general election match-up, starting this summer.


But if you are interested in if prior polls, taken a year before a November election, actually predict the nominees, you may be surprised by the results. Here is a look at the current “horse race” standings, and the last four primary seasons, where an incumbent wasn’t running or a nomination was contested. (The eventual nominees are indicated in bold-faced type.)


2016 Republican national primary polls


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%


Carson replaces Trump as the national Republican front runner, at least in this poll. Trump had assumed the polling lead in July from Bush.


2016 Democratic national primary polls


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


Clinton has twice the margin over Sanders than she had over Barack Obama at the same point in the 2008 presidential nomination campaign. Biden and Webb have dropped from the nomination hunt.


2012 Republican national primary polls


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%.


At this point Cain and Romney had staked out front runner positions in early November, but Cain quickly lost his momentum. By December, Gingrich moved ahead of Romney and Cain, then in January, Romney firmly grabbed the lead (and the eventual Republican nomination) as the party front runner, surviving a February challenge from Santorum.


2008 Republican national primary polls


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


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. By late January, McCain and Romney became the two GOP front runners, with McCain taking command in February.


2008 Democratic national primary polls


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


Clinton was the Democratic front runner in national polling until February 2012, when Obama, the only other significant contender, started catching up to her early in the month. Obama eventually won a hard-fought Democratic nomination.


2004 Democratic national primary polls


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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