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Flashback: The Polls in July 2003

Topics: 2008 , The 2008 Race

The blogs and mainstream media have featured much speculation, as they always do, on the trends in trial-heat vote questions on national and early state surveys and what they may foretell about the likely outcome next Spring. I thought a review of what these same surveys were saying four years ago about the Democratic nomination contest might serve as a valuable reality check.

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According to the Polling Report (my source for all the data that follows), seven organizations released polls in July 2003 on the Democratic race. The "undecided" option generally led on most surveys, and future nominee Sen. John Kerry received just 14% of the vote, typically slightly behind or tied with Rep. Dick Gephardt or Sen. Joe Lieberman. Howard Dean, who would emerge as a perceived "frontrunner" over the summer months was still averaging just 11%. Moreover, as the chart of the Annenberg National Election Survey data (described in more detail here several months ago) demonstrates vividly, Dean remained mired in the teens nationally until December 2003, but then plunged dramatically after his third place finish in Iowa.

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Was it any different in the early states this time four years ago? Dean, whose campaign had started running television advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire in June, had increased his share of the vote as compared to polls conducted in both states earlier in the year. Two polls - one from the Des Moines Register and another internal poll later released by Dick Gephardt's campaign - both showed Dean and Gephardt leading with just over 20%. Meanwhile, John Kerry and John Edwards, the two candidates that would ultimately emerge to finish first and second in the caucuses with a combined 69% of the state delegates selected, receiving an average of 18% of the vote in the surveys take in July 2003.

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The New Hampshire polls of July 2003 probably came closest to the ultimate result in that state, although John Kerry's average in those polls (24%) fell far short of his ultimate share of the vote (38%). Moreover, John Edwards and Wesley Clark who each averaged just 2% in these early polls, ultimately received just over 12% of the vote.

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Of course, 2008 is stacking up as a very different year than 2004. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are arguably better known now than any of the 2004 candidates were at this point four years ago. My point here is not to argue that 2008 will be like 2004, however, but to try to remind readers that there is still considerable room for change in the preferences voters express on these early surveys. We are just now coming to the close of the first phase of the campaign in the early states, where (except for Bill Richardson and Mitt Romney) none of the candidates have yet run significant amounts of television advertising. While the contest has started a bit earlier, we still have a long way to go.

 

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