Primary Polls - History

Primary Polls - History

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A Brief History of Primary Polling, Part I

I’m going to be doing a short series, probably in three parts, on the question of how much we can tell from polls conducted during the very early stages of a presidential primary campaign.

The thesis is that contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, national polls of primary voters — even this far out from the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary — do have a reasonable amount of predictive power in informing us as to the identity of the eventual nominee. That doesn’t mean that these polls are the only thing you should look at, or even necessarily the first thing, but they are a perfectly valid way to do some initial handicapping.

Another part of the thesis is that the polls can become even more useful if we also account for one other quality, which is name recognition.

In the first two pieces, I’m simply going to look at what the polls said about the respective fields for each competitive primary campaign going back to 1972, which is generally taken to be the beginning of the modern primary era (before about 1972, many states did not hold primaries at all, or they were beauty contests). Today, we’ll look at past Republican fields, and then turn to Democrats in the next article.

Specifically, I’m going to consider what the polls said at a comparable point in time to the one we find ourselves in now — early in the year before the primaries began. So, for instance, to evaluate the contenders for 1980, we𠆝 look at what the polls said in the first six months (January through June) of 1979. The polls were gathered by Micah Cohen and me from a number of resources, primarily Lexis-Nexis for the earlier years.

Since Richard Nixon faced only token opposition upon being re-nominated in 1972, our journey for Republicans begins in 1976. This is what things looked like in early 1975, the year before that primary was held.

Several technical points to make about this chart. First, you’ll see some color coding. The yellow highlight indicates the name of the eventual nominee. Candidates whose names appear in blue declined to run for the presidency, even though they appeared in some polls.

As you work your way from left to right in the data table, you’ll first see the candidate’s name, followed by his average standing in each of the polls we were able to track down. Just to the right of that, you’ll see two numbers in parentheses — for example, (2/3). These indicate, respectively, the number of polls the candidate was included in, and the total number of polls for that year. So Barry Goldwater, for instance, was included in 2 of the 3 polls that we identified for 1976.

If the candidate’s name was not included in the poll, we treat this as a zero rather than a 𠇋lank” — in other words, he is penalized for this. There are a couple of reasons for doing things this way. First, when there’s uncertainty about whether or not a candidate is going to run, this is a nice way to let the “market” come to a judgement about that — some pollsters will include him while others won’t. Second, this approach produces notably better predictions on the historical data set.

Next, you’ll see a column for “name recognition.” This is simply an estimate of the percentage of primary voters who would have heard of the candidate’s name at this stage of the election.

The best way to ask this question is probably in the way that Gallup does:

“I am going to mention the names of some people in the news. For each one, please tell me if you recognize the name, or not.”

Pollsters should be asking name recognition questions like this one more often than they do. A lot of polls ask for favorability ratings for the candidates, and allow people to “opt out” of the question if they haven’t formulated an opinion of them, but that’s putting the cart before the horse. People may be familiar with a candidate but have ambivalent feelings toward him, or may they feel pressure to provide some sort of response even if they don’t know him from Adam. The better way to do things — as Gallup often does — is to ask about name recognition first, and then ask about favorability conditional upon that question.

With that said, we were able to find some name recognition data, most often from Gallup, for perhaps 80 or 90 percent of the candidates. For the others, I made an educated guess based on factors like whether the candidate had run for the presidency before and the types of offices that he𠆝 held. For instance, an otherwise undistinguished senator or governor will usually start with name recognition of about 30 percent once he begins to make some noise about running for president and gets some early media attention, so that figure would be applied for this type of candidate when we lacked more specific data.

There certainly is some imprecision in my estimates because of factors like the different wording pollsters use to get at the name recognition question — as well the handful of cases in which there was no hard data at all — but in most cases, they ought to be sound estimates — considerably better than rough ones. If you have some evidence that strongly contradicts our estimate for a particular candidate, please feel free to notate that in an e-mail or in the comments section.

The final column is the Recognition Adjusted Poll Average — I suppose you could use the acronym RAPA, but it’s not terribly catchy — which is simply the candidate’s polling average divided by his name recognition. In other words, it measures the percentage of those people who were familiar with a candidate who had him as their first choice. Although this figure tends not to be terribly interesting for the Republicans, you’ll see some cases once we get to the Democrats where it turns out to be quite informative.

Getting back to 1976, we see that there were a wide array of Republicans — everyone from Barry Goldwater to Nelson Rockefeller — who were mentioned as potential successors to Gerald Ford, who was uncertain to run for his own term after taking over following Richard Nixon’s resignation. Once Mr. Ford determined to run, only one candidate, Ronald Reagan, challenged him.

Mr. Reagan, who had about 20 percent support in early polls as compared to Mr. Ford’s 38 percent, came very close to winning his challenge, but ultimately lost it on the floor of the Republican convention in Kansas City.

Mr. Reagan had a leg up on the 1980 nomination, however, which he won fairly easily:

The most serious threat to Mr. Reagan was again probably Mr. Ford, but Mr. Reagan led him in early polls, and Mr. Ford opted not to run. His most vigorous challenge eventually came from George H.W. Bush, who had made little impression on voters early on but won the slot as Mr. Reagan’s vice presidential nominees for his efforts.

Mr. Reagan was essentially unopposed in 1984, so we’ll skip ahead to 1988.

Mr. Bush led in the early polls, although he was no shoo-in, with Bob Dole in particular looking like a serious challenger. Mr. Bush eventually prevailed, however, despite losing to both Mr. Dole and Pat Robertson in Iowa.

The next cycle, 1992, was an unusual one. For a variety of reasons, including the Gulf War and a late primary calendar, the presidential field was very slow to form on both sides for instance, Bill Clinton did not officially declare for the presidency until October 1991. In fact, we could not find any polls for Republicans in the first sixth months of 1991. So for this year and this year alone, the polls reflect everything in the field from July through December of the year before the primary, rather than January through June.

By late 1991, Mr. Bush’s popularity was waning and he was unpopular enough that he received a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan. The polls suggested that Mr. Buchanan wasn’t much of a threat, and he turned out not to be, although Mr. Buchanan came somewhat closer than expected in New Hampshire, getting 37 percent of the vote there.

The 1996 Republican field was much broader, but Bob Dole had a very substantial early lead in the polls and won the nomination easily, losing only 6 states. The candidate who might have been the most challenging to him, Texas Senator Phil Gramm  — who got a decent amount of support in the polls despite middling name recognition — turned out to be a poor retail campaigner.

The next cycle, 2000, also featured a clear frontrunner in the persona of George W. Bush, who had a huge early lead in polls despite being part of a reasonably deep field. Mr. Bush fended off a late surge from John McCain and won 43 sates.

After Mr. Bush won re-nomination without a fight in 2004, it was Mr. McCain’s turn in 2008. He had to come from behind, however, as he trailed Rudolph W. Giuliani in all but 2 of the 68 polls conducted in early 2007.

This is, in fact, the only time in the modern era that the Republican who led in the early polls failed win the nomination — and Mr. McCain was running a reasonably strong second place. Granted, some of these years, like 1992, were only nominally competitive — but overall that’s a pretty darned good track record, and not one consistent with the hypothesis that early polls are meaningless.

But nomination contests have been far more dynamic and far less predictable on the Democratic side, as we’ll see in the next installment.

The History of the open primaries movement

Progressive era reformers began adopting primaries for state and federal offices to steer control away from political machines and party bosses, and to return power to the voters in the nomination process. Prior to this point, party insiders nominated candidates through a caucus.

In response to the growing progressive movement, 25 of the 48 states create presidential primary laws. These laws are meant to give voters more control over the nomination of Presidential candidates and build a more transparent electoral process.

California voters pass Proposition 198, the Open Primary Act, which creates a Blanket Primary system. The measures passes with 59% of the vote.

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Proposition 198, California's Blanket Primary System, in California Democratic Party v. Jones.

Michael Bloomberg runs for New York City mayor on the Republican and Independence tickets. He advocates for nonpartisan municipal elections, during his campaign.

Mayor Bloomberg empanels a Charter Revision Commission, which after months of public hearings, opts to place a referendum on the ballot for nonpartisan municipal elections. The entire New York City political establishment opposes the measure, and it fails to pass.

Voters in Washington State pass Initiative 872 with 60% of the vote.

California voters narrowly reject Proposition 62, a proposed nonpartisan, Top Two initiative, by a vote of 46.1% for and 53.9% against.

U.S. District Court of Western Seattle rules in favor of the Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian parties who sued over the implementation of Top Two, nonpartisan primaries ruling Washington’s Initiative 872 unconstitutional.

Washington State brings the suit over Initiative 872 to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who upholds the previous ruling of the US District Court. Washington appeals again to the US Supreme Court.

New Hampshire Representative Pamela Manney introduces HB 196 to restrict the rights of independent voters from participating in primaries., a 501(c)(4) organization that advocates for the rights of independent voters, spearheads a successful campaign to prevent the bill from passing.

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Washington State’s nonpartisan, Top Two primary system. Washington holds its first primary election under the nonpartisan, Top Two system.

In Oregon, Top Two open primaries fails at the ballot box. Led by former Secretaries of State Phil Keisling and Norma Paulus, Proposition 65 is opposed by both major political parties and the public sector unions and fails to pass.

In Idaho, the Republican Party files suit to compel the state to enact closed primaries and partisan voter registration. intervenes on behalf of a group of Idaho independents.

In Pennsylvania, Rep. Eugene DePascuale introduces legislation to allow Pennsylvania’s independent voters to participate in party primaries. Independent Pennsylvania activists mobilize grassroots support and organize a lobby day in Harrisburg, but the bill stalls in committee.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division rules invalid a referendum to enact nonpartisan municipal elections for local elections. The referendum was originally passed by the citizens of Kinston, NC, a majority African American community. Loretta King, acting Assistant Attorney General, states “the elimination of party affiliation on the ballot will likely reduce the ability of blacks to elect candidates of choice.” Independent activists and organizations mobilize media and grassroots support against the DOJ ruling, challenging the premise that black voters are only empowered through the Democratic Party. The Justice Department withdraws its objection in 2011.

California voters, along with a coalition of Gov. Schwarzenegger, Lt. Gov. Maldonado, the AARP, the Chamber of Commerce, the California Independent Voter Project, Common Cause, and IndependentVoice.Org, pass Proposition 14, which brings Top Two open primaries to California. The minor parties block with the two major parties in opposition.

NYC Mayor Bloomberg impanels another Charter Revision Commission to explore changes to the city’s primary system. The Citizen’s Union, which opposed the measure in 2003, changes its position and endorses nonpartisan municipal elections. Despite a growing chorus of support, The Charter Revision Committee decides against putting a nonpartisan municipal election proposal to a vote on the 2010 ballot.

In South Carolina, the GOP files suit to compel the state of South Carolina to close primary elections, which have been open since the dismantling of Jim Crow in the mid 1960’s. secures defendant-intervenor status for a diverse group of organizations and individuals, including 13 African-American elected officials, independent activists, and pro-open primaries conservatives. The federal court rejects efforts by the GOP to win a summary judgment motion. The case is currently pending.

In Kentucky, Independent Kentucky Founder Michael Lewis organizes Rep. Jimmy Higdon to introduce open primaries legislation. Lewis’s lobbying efforts receive national media attention. The bill passes the Senate but loses in the Assembly.

After three years of litigation, the US District Court of Idaho rules that the Idaho GOP has the right to close their primaries.

In Arizona, a coalition of Independents, Democrats, and Republicans join forces to support Proposition 121, a nonpartisan, Top Two open primary measure. Though supported by the Arizona Republic, Prop 121 is tied up in court by a frivolous lawsuit, opposed by both parties, the League of Women Voters and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and loses 66% to 33%.

California holds its first primary election under the new nonpartisan primary system.

The Democratic Party of Hawaii challenges the state’s open primary as a violation of their First Amendment right to free association because all voters -- regardless of political party -- can participate in choosing the party's candidates for general elections. The party argues that only voters who affiliate with the Democratic Party before primaries should be able to participate. U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright issues a written order that concludes the party failed to show the open primary is a "severe burden" on its free association rights and made assumptions about voter behavior without presenting evidence. Hawaii’s open primary system is upheld as constitutional.

Oregon voters reject Measure 90, a nonpartisan, Top Two ballot measure, by a 36% margin.

The coalition, founded by the Independent Voter Project and, file a federal lawsuit challenging the taxpayer funding of closed primary elections. The New Jersey constitution states that public funds should not be expended on the activities of private organizations.

Montana GOP files suit to close primaries in the state.

Congressman John Delaney of Maryland sponsors the Open Our Democracy Act in the House. The bill includes a measure to bring nonpartisan, Top Two primaries to every congressional race in every state. The bill dies in committee.

Utah introduces and passes SB54, Count My Vote, to open the state’s dual primary/caucus system.

After a contentious Senate race in which Incumbent Republican Thad Cochran mobilized African American voters to defeat Tea Party hopeful Chris McDaniel in the GOP Primary, Mississippi Secretary of State Hosemann commissions a study to explore improving the state’s election system.

Count My Vote legislation in Utah faces opposition from the Republican Party as they try to stall implementation.

A group of State Senators sponsor SB 1066, a bill that establishes a closed GOP Presidential Primary in Idaho for March 2016. The bill is an attempt to boost participation from the current caucus system by implementing a closed primary using $2 million of taxpayer dollars.

State Senator Chris McDaniel introduces a bill in an attempt to close Mississippi primaries. The bill is strongly opposed and eventually dies in committee.

Mississippi Secretary of State’s Committee to Review Election Laws recommends a move to nonpartisan, Top Two primaries in Mississippi.

State Senator Dave Holt introduces a bill in the Oklahoma State Legislature to bring nonpartisan, Top Two Primaries to his state.

State Rep. Max Gruenberg introduces HB 17 to the Alaska State Legislature, his third attempt to bring nonpartisan, Top Two to state primaries.

State Rep. Mike Fortner introduces HB 2719 to the Illinois General Assembly, calling for a nonpartisan, Top Two primary.

Do These Numbers Mean Anything?

It’s a good question, but if I say they mean nothing, then what was the point of writing about them? Clearly they mean something if, at a minimum, we can get an idea of how wide open the race is for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Democratic voters are taking their time, examining the field, and want to learn more about the candidates before selecting someone to challenge President Trump.

In the coming months, as the field gels and we get a sense of final slate of candidates running for the 2020 Democratic nomination, one of these candidates will start to have a breakout moment. It might be Pete Buttigieg for all we know, or it could be Bernie, or maybe Harris. Maybe Joe Biden will enter the race and drive his numbers up and keep them for the rest of the year only to be unseated in January. The various scenarios are endless and all reasonably valid to explore.

Heading toward the first debate, on June 26 and 27, the numbers will churn and tighten, but if they tell us anything, it’s that we’re heading for a strongly contested primary on the Democratic side.

US politicians spend more time on the campaign trail than in any comparable nation, and open primaries are a big reason why. But it hasn’t always been like this.

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The modern United States seemingly finds itself in a constant campaign for political office. Voters know the drill: the aftermath of a presidential election gives rise immediately to primary challenger speculation, dubiously leaked polling, and exploratory committees for the next one.

Midterm elections give a lay of the land. For declarations of candidacy, you can pencil in a tightly choreographed home video or a fiery stump speech. Then, after 12 months of campaigning, six months of caucus and primary voting involving tens of millions of party-registered voters, the who’s-who of local, state and national party machines descend on convention-halls to rubber-stamp the people’s choice.

Then – and only then – does the US presidential election get underway.

But the bruising 2016 Democratic primaries and the questionable vetting abilities of their Republican counterparts cast doubt over the merits of an open primary system. Most comparable Western, liberal democracies aren’t so accommodating of constant electioneering.

The British and Canadian elections run for 38 days and 36 days, respectively. Australia registers as one of the shorter campaign seasons at a minimum of 33 days and a constitutionally mandated maximum of 58. And despite some French parties gradually moving towards open primaries, their elections push the whole process out to a comparably short six months. The open primary system as known to America is, for the most part, non-existent in these jurisdictions.

This is why US politicians spend more time on the campaign-trail than their counterparts in almost any comparable democracy. In the information age, politicians asking for your money or your vote prove almost inescapable more than just a nuisance. Concerns of democratic fatigue plague these marathon campaigns.

Consider, too, what sort of personality this gruelling process attracts – will it be those who will spend their time actually governing, or those who seek the approval of others and revel in the proverbial knife-fight of polarised politics.

The gluttons for punishment among us might say that this drawn-out selection of candidates is the most democratic method for choosing our leaders. After all, voters not only choose who they vote for, but who they get to vote for. But candidate selection is about more than just election length paradoxically, the experience of other countries shows that less democratic candidate selection processes might actually better shape our political class and strengthen democratic safeguards.

Despite a gradual shift away from caucus ballots to primary-like party leadership votes, Australia and the United Kingdom opt for closed, intra-party candidate selections for parliamentary seats. Referred to as a preselection, candidates in this process are chosen internally by select party members with voting rights.

To prevent interference, voting rights are typically allotted to a few hundred fee-paying members in each electorate who have been members of the party for a period of time longer than a uniform probationary period. If the candidate is any good, local party members will know them personally, as a friend and equal. Yet, parties in Australia and the United Kingdom are increasingly feeling the need to democratise, beginning with how they elect a party leader.

In these liberal democracies, the view that political parties are private organisations is also more prevalent, likely helped by the fact that taxpayers don’t pay to facilitate candidate selection as they do in the United States. The preselection system is designed to reward activists who invest time and money in the party.

Most importantly, a higher bar for membership and the closed nature of these elections creates the unofficial role of party powerbrokers, who derive influence based upon on locality or ideology. Their role in ensuring a responsible candidate selection is important. Caucus ballots represent another check on the electorate, in which elected members of the party caucus have a role in electing their party leader much as they do for the speaker in the US House of Representatives.

And while I am comparing candidate selection across different systems of government in Westminster and Washington, the United States could just as easily adopt a closed-party system – in fact, it has done so before.

How we got here

Despite dominating modern American politics, the primary election as we know it is a rather recent development. Only fully realized in the 1980 Reagan electoral cycle, the progression of candidate selection in the United States has broadly taken three forms, according to Bruce J. Schulman, the William E. Huntington Professor of History at Boston University: nomination by the statehouse or congressional caucus, nomination by a convention of party bosses, and open caucus and primary elections.

In a system which bears similarities to modern-day preselection in Westminster-style parliamentary democracies, the American republic’s earliest method of candidate selection empowered elected representatives to nominate their party’s presidential candidate. The first nominating conventions of party delegates were introduced as the country moved toward the mass, catch-all parties of the Jacksonian Era which would see two parties dominate the entire ideological spectrum.

Still, this system enfranchised relatively few electors. Schulman advises that in this model “there [were] party caucuses and state party conventions that selected delegates, but in general the delegates [were] not pledged to any candidate and often they [were] controlled by … the big state or city leader, [who would] have a block of delegates.”

According to Schulman, these conventions were characterised by states “horse-trading” delegates in return for cabinet posts and policy outcomes. Sometimes this internal deliberation could last for up to two weeks.

Despite the concept of open primaries first gaining traction in the early 1900s, for about 70 years just 15 states facilitated the elections. Schulman says “as late as 1968 there were only 15 primaries, and those primaries only accounted for a third of the national nominating convention.”

Primaries had little-to-no decisive impact on nomination outcomes. In furthering this point, he cites Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. Humphrey didn’t win, nor did he even contest, any of the 15 open primaries. But 1968 did mark a turning point for the US electoral system.

Humphrey’s nominating convention was marred by widespread protests and bloodshed which took place outside on the streets of Chicago. Conflict between demonstrators and police, under the control of Democratic powerbroker and Mayor Richard Daley, exemplified the split between "new politics" constituencies and the entrenched party bosses.

The increasing enfranchisement of women, African-Americans and young people activated in opposition to the Vietnam war posed a challenge to the politics-as-usual nomination of the sitting vice-president. Despite their newfound voice, these voters were militating in favour of causes much the same as those which guided the early 20th Century progressive reform movement.

Fighting “what they viewed as corruption in politics,” Schulman claims the progressive reform movement wanted to “not only weaken the power of party bosses but weaken the power of plutocrats [also].” 60 years on, this battle against the establishment was picked up again by a movement more diverse than anything America had yet seen.

In response, the DNC created the McGovern-Fraser Commission to reform candidate selection by expanding open primaries. Delegates would be bound by their state’s primary election. As a consequence, the 1972 nomination saw George McGovern translate success in the primaries into votes on the convention floor – to the well-publicised chagrin of the party old guard.

The Republicans went on to match the selection reforms, but in the ensuing decade the Democratic establishment would reclaim some influence through the introduction of superdelegates. In late 2018, the DNC opted to remove the influence of party officials as delegates unless in the case of a contested convention.

The evolution of candidate selection in America is fundamentally about tension between grassroots activists and party elites, between a more participatory democracy or closed-door politicking. But did these progressive elements and the seismic electoral changes they brought do more harm than good?

This is part one of a three-part series. Part two, which compares America’s primary system with that in other developed democracies like the UK, will be released next week. Part three, which considers potential solutions, will be released the week after.

Corbin Duncan studies Government and History at Harvard University and formerly worked as a political advisor in Australia. He tweets @DuncanCorbin.

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The big one &mdash Texas' biggest ever primary &mdash the one with the biggest turnout, most media attention and most significant political consequences &mdash came in 2008. That year, then-candidate Barack Obama's upstart campaign upended what was expected to be a coronation for Hillary Clinton in the designated early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The two campaigns continued to battle it out through Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, leaving the race still up in the air nearly a month later when the campaign moved to the March 4 primaries in Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont and Texas.

Almost 3 million voters responded to the resources the campaigns poured into the state and participated in the Democratic primary elections, with thousands more showing up for election night caucuses. (The state has since done away with its split system.)

Clinton won the primary by a little more than three points, winning 65 delegates to Obama's 61, but the Obama campaign out-organized Clinton in the evening caucuses, running up an advantage of nine pledged delegates.


Ted gets lucky &mdash If Texas had been a Super Tuesday participant in 2012, maybe, just maybe, Ted Cruz would be working somewhere other than the U.S. Senate.

Cruz entered Texas' 2012 GOP Senate essentially unknown. He'd previously served as the Texas solicitor general, but that was really it, as far as political experience went. Then Texas' primary got pushed back all the way to May &mdash thanks to an ongoing redistricting battle &mdash and Cruz was able to leverage his tea party popularity and an extremely low turnout election into a runoff win.


Ted walks over &mdash It's easy to forget, but Texas was actually among the Super Tuesday states in 2016, as well. Neither primary was particularly competitive, however. By the time March 1 rolled around, Clinton had basically eliminated any real chance Bernie Sanders had of winning the nomination, and it would've been a huge waste of resources for any GOP candidate to take a real run at Cruz in his home state. Clinton won by 32, Cruz bested President Donald Trump by 17, and that was that.

Reagan Mania gets to Texas four years early &mdash By the time Texas voters cast their ballots in the 1976 Republican primary on May 1, President Gerald Ford had beaten his insurgent challenger, Ronald Reagan, in eight out of nine nominating contests. Reagan walloped Ford in the Lone Star State, winning nearly two-thirds of the vote, and the race was on. Reagan piled up primary and caucus victories over the late spring and summer, but Ford eventually won out the nomination on a tightly contested first ballot at the Republican National Convention.

Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter coasted to a win in the Democratic primary, foreshadowing his winning Texas over Ford in November.

Four years later, Reagan narrowly won the Texas primary over George H.W. Bush, but by that time he was already the presumptive nominee, having dominated the early states.

Texas' polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Dallas County voters can cast ballots at any polling location in the county.

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U.S. Political Conventions & Campaigns

During the Progressive era, which lasted from roughly 1890-1920, the people’s desire for reform in the political process led to the establishment of the primaries. A primary is a state election in which citizens of that state cast their vote for the candidate whom they want to represent their party in the general election.

With an eye to making the process of presidential nominations more democratic, progressive reform efforts focused initially on making the delegate and candidate selection processes more transparent and inclusive. One of the earliest efforts was made by Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follette who’s frustration with the backroom politics in the 1904 elections led him to draft legislation that allowed Wisconsin voters more say over convention delegate selection. Subsequent states followed suit, so that by 1916, twenty-five of the forty-eight states had presidential primaries and stricter rules binding delegates to popular election results.

After World War I, the appetite for reform in the political process decreased as the country entered a period of political conservatism. In fact, eight states actually abandoned their primaries in favor of the old tradition of only allowing delegates to cast votes for their party’s nominee. As the Progressive movement lost momentum in American politics, so too did the idea of the state primaries in the nominating process.

Following World War II, primaries made a resurgence. With the advent of television and radio, populist-minded candidates could get their message directly to the voters and circumnavigate the influences of party bosses. This meant that lesser known candidates stood a chance at prevailing in the state primaries over more senior candidates with greater clout among party insiders. Candidates like Adlai Stevenson used the media advantageously to connect with voters, win state primaries, and ultimately wrest the nomination from the party’s establishment at the 1952 Democratic Convention. This trend continued in the post-war era, and came to a head in 1960.

History Shows January Front-runner Often Does Not Win Democratic Nomination

PRINCETON, NJ -- The presidential election primary season is upon us, with the Iowa caucus now less than two weeks away, and with the high visibility New Hampshire primary taking place in only three weeks, on Jan. 27. Not a single vote has yet been cast, but former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has already been anointed the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination (and is on the cover of both TIME and Newsweek magazines this week) -- based in large part on his strong showing in recent public opinion polls at both the national and state level.

But just how predictive is this type of strength in early national polling in terms of a candidate's chances of actually winning the Democratic nomination?

There have been 10 races over the last 50 years in which there was a significant contest for the Democratic nomination: 1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, and 2000. (The omitted years of 1964, 1980, and 1996 were ones in which a Democratic incumbent president ran for re-election with little or no opposition.)

The nature of these contests has changed over the years, of course, but the comparison of early national poll results with the eventual nomination outcome provides us with a track record of sorts in our attempt to answer the "prediction" question. And the answer is clear: there is no clear relationship between the candidate leading in Gallup's national trial heat surveys among Democrats at the beginning of an election year and the eventual winner of the party's nomination. In fact, in only 4 out of the 10 elections (Adlai Stevenson in 1952, John F. Kennedy in 1960, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Al Gore in 2000) did the front-runner in late December/early January win the Democratic Party's nomination. In all other instances, someone else came from behind as the primary season unfolded.

2000 Presidential Election

In the 2000 presidential election, incumbent Vice President Al Gore maintained a considerable lead over Bill Bradley in the month leading up to the primary season, and Gore, of course, eventually won the party's nomination for president. A slight majority of Democrats, 52%, supported Gore in late December 1999, compared with just 38% who supported Bradley. Gore's role as Bill Clinton's vice president made him a quasi-incumbent in 2000, and he was widely expected to be his party's nominee.

Democratic Nomination for President
(Horse Race for Democratic Ticket in 2000)

Gallup Poll

Survey Date

Candidate labeled in bold won the party's nomination for president.

1992 and 1988 Presidential Elections

Both the 1992 and 1988 races for the Democratic nominations were essentially still wide-open as late as January in each of these two years the front-runner in the national polls in both instances did not receive his party's nomination.

Although then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had by January 1992 risen from relative obscurity to the point where he was in second place in Gallup's poll of Democrats around the nation, he was still running behind former California Gov. Jerry Brown. Only later did he move to the top of the national poll's list.

In 1988, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart led the Democratic nomination in a mid-January Gallup survey, with 25% support among Democrats. The eventual nominee, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, was only supported by 10% of Democrats in that poll (quite similar to the positioning of several candidates running behind Dean in recent national polling for the 2004 Democratic nomination).

Democratic Nomination for President
(Horse Race for Democratic Ticket in 1988 and 1992)

The Convention as Testing Ground for Candidates

Even as more states began to hold primary races over the next few decades, the convention remained the main way of selecting a candidate for president. Adlai Stevenson didn’t run in any of the 1952 Democratic presidential primaries, but still won the convention’s nomination that year. His Republican opponent, Dwight Eisenhower, wasn’t a clear winner in the Republican primaries, but the convention selected him because he led in opinion polls.

“The effect of primaries was not that they would elect enough delegates to make the decision,” says Geoffrey Cowan, a professor of communication and journalism at USC Annenberg School and author of Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.

“Instead of that, they were testing grounds for people’s popularity,” he continues. Primaries played a significant role in selecting John F. Kennedy as the 1960 Democratic presidential nominee. “It was thought that a Catholic couldn’t win the presidency, and when he won the state of West Virginia…it showed that he could win.”

Between the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections, the balance of power between the convention and the primaries radically shifted, giving primaries far more power in picking candidates.

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Going back eight years ago, an early September 2007 NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll had former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani leading the GOP presidential field at 32 percent, followed by former Tennessee senator turned actor Fred Thompson at 26 percent.

“Being the early leader directs all the press attention to you, which can be a good thing, or can be a very bad thing if you’re not ready for it,” said a Republican strategist who advised Thompson's campaign in 2008. “Thompson was unready for a lot of the national press attention and unwilling to do the work that turned potential support into actual votes.”

It’s not just the early leaders who are susceptible to dramatic downfalls because of a lack of preparedness. Republican businessman Herman Cain shot to the top of an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in October 2011. Sexual harassment allegations and an alleged affair ended his campaign just two months later.

And it’s a trend that is not just confined to Republicans. The September 2007 poll had New York Sen. Hillary Clinton leading Illinois Sen. Barack Obama 44 percent to 23 percent.

That political history has not been lost on the low-polling candidates, who have used them to defend their standing in the race.

“Eight years ago, Rudy Giuliani was leading the pack and everyone was writing John McCain's political obituary,” Santorum communications director Matt Beynon said after the 2012 Iowa caucus winner was left out of the prime-time debate. “National polls are meaningless in August.”

John Sides, an associate professor at George Washington University, argues that early polling rarely is useful when trying to predict a nominee. His research has found that poll respondents have little likelihood of correctly choosing election outcomes more than 300 days before Election Day.

"When you interrupt someone during their day and you give them a long list of candidates to choose from, familiarity is important."

Instead, he said, it’s more likely a matter of people picking names they have heard -- in Trump’s case, a former reality TV star.

“Name ID is important,” Sides said. “When you interrupt someone during their day and you give them a long list of candidates to choose from, familiarity is important.”

Pollsters say the early numbers are meant to provide a snapshot of the race, not to predict the future. And the attention Trump has gotten in the early months may explain how he has remained the “Teflon man” of the 2016 presidential cycle. The media’s focus on Trump means there is less focus on the other candidates, halting their attempts to boost their own name recognition.

The volatility of past polling is why many have been waiting for Trump’s balloon to pop, especially in recent days. As the frontrunner, Trump drew most of the focus during the first GOP presidential debate last week in Cleveland, Ohio. The real-estate mogul initially said the questions to him were unfair, but his criticisms escalated after that.

Watch the video: Primaries and caucuses. American civics. US History. Khan Academy (July 2022).


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