A recent poll from Public Policy Polling shows Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as leading candidates for the 2016 presidential race. But if polling trends since the 1970s hold true, their nominations are far from settled.
In the poll released last Wednesday, Clinton would defeat Christie with 44 percent of the vote, compared with 42 percent for the governor, if the 2016 election were held today.
But an analysis from The New York Times’ Nate Silver and some historic data on Gallup’s website show that the early favorites can be left behind when the primary votes are counted.
The PPP survey also said that while Christie would be the Republican to come closest to Clinton in a head-to-head race, he would be in a fourth-place tie in the GOP primaries with former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is also chairman of the National Constitution Center.
Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Mike Huckabee were all polling ahead of Christie and Bush, but not by a large margin, in the PPP poll.
Clinton was leading by a huge margin over Vice President Joe Biden in the Democratic side of the PPP poll.
Looking back at similar data in 2009 from Gallup, it’s easy to see why polling data four years ahead of an election can be problematic at best.
In November 2009, Huckabee was seen as the leading GOP contender, closely followed by Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Pawlenty.
Romney had actually been the favorite in the summer of 2009, but he dropped into a second-place tie.
In a wild ride to the 2012 nomination, Romney was often a leader among the GOP candidates, but Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Donald Trump, Huckabee, and Palin led or tied with Romney at some point along the way.
In April 2011, the Times’ Silver looked back at composite polling for primary races going back to 1972, and his analysis showed the front-runner, even a year before nomination conventions, didn’t always win the nomination.
If the historic polls were accurate, Edmund Muskie (1972), George Wallace (1976), Edward Kennedy (1980), Gary Hart (1988), Marion Cuomo (1992), Joe Lieberman (2004), and Hillary Clinton (2008) would have taken the Democratic nominations when an uncontested, incumbent president wasn’t running for the Democrats.
Walter Mondale and Al Gore were strong favorites in open races in 1984 and 2000, so in seven out of nine cases, the Democratic favorite 18 months before the nomination didn’t cross the finish line.
For the Republicans, in only one case did a strong favorite, Rudy Guiliani, falter during the primary season, when he lost to John McCain in 2008. Romney became the 2012 front-runner in May 2011 after Huckabee decided to opt out of a presidential run.
So in eight contested GOP primaries, the favorite wound up winning seven races.
Silver forecast in May 2011 that Romney would take the nomination based on a combination of high name recognition and consistent polling performances, even if Huckabee jumped back into the race. But Romney’s odds were lower than any other GOP favorite since 1976.
He also said the Democratic primaries in 1976 and 1988 were the closest, as far as having a weak frontrunner, and it was imperative that a candidate with wide name recognition keep a popularity rating in the double digits to remain as a contender.
Michael Dukakis was able to move up from third place in the polls in 1988 as other candidates like Hart and Jesse Jackson trailed off.
Looking back at 1976 and 1992, two candidates with lower name recognition wound up taking the nomination. Jimmy Carter was tied for 12th place in the early polling in 1975; Bill Clinton was in 13th place in the first half of 1991.
And in 2007, Hillary Clinton held a 15-point lead over Senator Barack Obama in what essentially became a two-candidate race after John Edwards faded away. Obama eventually took the nomination in an extremely close race.
Today, Clinton holds a 41-point lead over Biden in the PPP poll. But if she were to not run, the Democratic field would be wide open.
The PPP poll also has five Republicans with double-digit numbers—Rubio, Ryan, Huckabee, Christie, and Bush—in what could be another bruising primary race in 2016.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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