Democrats and the Curse of the Frontrunner

June 26, 2007

Should we treat Hillary Clinton’s lead in the opinion polls with a pinch of salt?


As yesterday’s article about the Democratic nomination makes clear that I believe that Hillary Clinton is, and should be, regarded as the favourite for the Democratic nomination. However, the Democrat field is notorious for being one with a track record of frontrunner failure. Looking at the Gallup archive for opinion polls in the summer before the primaries I found the following:

1951 – A poll on May 24th had Dwight Eisenhower leading Truman. Adlai Stevenson was not among the ten possible candidates listed in the poll.

1967 – By July 18th Lyndon Johnson was leading Robert Kennedy by over 6% with no other candidate having declared.

1971 –Polls in April and June had Hubert Humphrey and Ted Kennedy leading the field with George McGovern in single digits.

1975 – A poll on May 5th had Hubert Humphrey as the frontrunner with Jimmy Carter on 1.25%, behind over twenty other possible candidates.

1979 – A poll on August 10th had Ted Kennedy ahead of President Carter by over 25%.

1987 – A poll on July 13th had Jesse Jackson in the lead, slightly ahead of Michael Dukakis.

1991 – As late as June 29th Paul Tsongas was the only declared candidate. In a list of candidates people would like to see run, Bill Clinton was sixth with only 1.75% (13 respondants in total) wanting him to enter the race.

2003 – Joe Lieberman was the undoubted frontrunner in the first half of 2003. Even by July 12th he was still in the lead by four points. John Kerry, was in fourth place behind Dick Gephardt and Al Sharpton.

So in eight out of the 12 post-war elections for which we have polls for (there were no polls covering the Democrat nomination in the summers of 1947, 1963 or 1995) the candidate who was leading in the polls during the previous summer or late spring did not win the Democratic nomination. So, what conclusions can we draw from this? The obvious conclusion is that the Democratic primaries are indeed extremely fluid and that trailing candidates can come back (Carter, Dukakis and Kerry are obvious examples) while obscure candidates can rise to the top provided enough ‘big guns’ decide to withdraw (McGovern, Carter in 1976 and Clinton are obvious examples).

However, the temptation to simply use past form should be resisted. Hillary Clinton, barring an unforeseen event, is simply not going to withdraw (as in 1952, 1968, 1972 or 1976). Nor, like Lieberman in 2004 and Jesse Jackson in 1988, her support built upon the fact that she has superior name recognition. In fact the best analogy is with 1984, one of the few cases where the frontrunner managed to win the nomination, where Walter Mondale used his establishment status and better organisation to win beat Gary Hart.


One comment

  1. […] Logic has never ruled the human race, and it never will; casinos are still packed with people trying to beat what they know are low mathematical odds, we breathlessly share David and Goliath stories whenever we hear them, because there’s something so romantic about the triumph of the little guy. The great irony often is, simply being the favorite dooms you to bad press and hopes of your failure.It is with this cruel irony in mind that I say this: were she to run, I think Elizabeth Warren would present a huge challenge for Hilary Clinton – and one that just might sink her. Indeed, prescient voices were saying roughly the same thing back in 2007. […]

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