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Pres 08: The Democratic Primary Race

Topics: 2008 , The 2008 Race

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(Click the image for a full resolution view, and click here for an 11 x 17 version in .pdf in case you still need a last minute gift. Goes great with the Republican plot here for the bipartisan in your family.)

The Democratic race for the presidential nomination has seen some small but interesting dynamics, though there is much yet to come. (I posted on the Republican race here last week.) As with the GOP post, I've include every Democrat who has been included in any poll's list of candidates. (Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) who declared his candidacy Dec. 12 has yet to appear in a poll and hence is omitted from the figure. He'll of course be added as soon as poll results exist. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel also declared his candidacy on April 17, 2006 but has yet to appear in any polls. See the handy list at CQPolitics.com here.) All polls included here are of "Democrats" or "Democratic primary voters" (which may include some independents.

The lede here (already somewhat buried-- Sorry Ray, I know you taught me better!) has to be that Illinois Senator Barack Obama does not yet have the nomination sewed up, despite what breathless prose and unimaginative yet endlessly repetitive use of "rock star" in stories might have you believe. ("Obama" and "rock star" appear in the same paragraph of 122 stories since September 1 according to LexisNexis.) If we actually pay some attention to the data, we get a more reasonable assessment of the Senator's support.

The surge in support for Sen. Obama is quite real since October 22 when he suggested he might consider a presidential bid. Prior to that the three polls that had asked about him as a possible candidate had all registered support well below 10%. In the 11 polls that have included his name since October 22, Obama has been supported by between 11% and 23% of Democrats polled, averaging 17% support. (The trend line in the figure is a poor indicator of recent trends with so few polls, so the overall average of 17 is probably the best current estimate of his support.) That is impressive for a first term Senator, and the reports of enthusiasm (not to mention a Newsweek cover that suggests the race is down to Obama vs. Sen. Hilary Clinton) are a fine way to launch a campaign. But any sensible reading of these data show that while Sen. Obama has enjoyed a brief flurry of attention and a surge in support, he is far from catching up to the actual front runner, based on the polls, Sen. Clinton, whose most recent polls are over twice as high.

This is to disparage poor reporting rather than Sen. Obama's chances. But those chances deserve a serious and longer term look rather than the hype we have seen. Now that the initial flurry of media excitement is passing, the question is whether the trend in Obama support can establish an upward trajectory. So far we simply don't know because his polling history is far too short for any confident estimates.

Sen. Clinton has easily led the field so far, as any poll reader would know. But there is a bit of a dynamic in her support that has been less remarked upon. While holding at or above 40% throughout 2005 (with one mid-year and two late year exceptions), Sen. Clinton has seen some non-trivial erosion of support through 2006, falling from 40% to 33% support (based on the trend estimate), though rebounding to almost 36% at year's end. That hardly constitutes a collapse, but does suggest that the lead is not immovable. It is also clear that this decline came before "Obama-mania" took hold in late fall. So while Sen. Clinton continues to be the clear "front runner" in the polls, her hold on Democratic support is not entirely solid. Those not satisfied with her as a choice are liable to jump to a seemingly viable alternative, a well known phenomena in presidential primary polling. Sen. Obama's rise in support may provide an example. But the year long decline in support shows that Sen. Clinton must work to secure the nomination, rather than take front runner status for granted.

By contrast, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who lost to President Bush in 2004, has seen support for a second nomination fall steadily throughout 2005 and 2006. While short term memories may focus on Sen. Kerry's lack of verbal facility late in the 2006 campaign, this decline in support has not been the result of a single slip of the tongue. From 20% at the start of 2005, Sen. Kerry fell steadily to 14% by the beginning of 2006 and to about 7% at the end of 2006. While the Senator appears to continue to plan for a second run, the steady fall in support, capped by late fall pre-election mistakes but by no means due solely to those slips, suggests that in fact few Democrats support a second nomination and that his early support has been due primarily to strong name recognition, especially in 2005.

Another previous nominee has seen an opposite trend. Al Gore, the nominee in 2000 who has been quite reluctant to mount a new campaign, has risen in support from under 5% to around 17% in 2006, though he has fallen to about 12% as of December 2006. For such a reluctant candidate, Gore continues to do well as memories of the supposed shortcomings of his 2000 campaign fade from memory now refreshed with an outstanding powerpoint presentation translated to the big screen. Come to think of it, Ross Perot's 1992 graphs helped him too. Maybe powerpoint is the campaign technique of the future.

The other 2004 nominee, for Vice-President, former Sen. John Edwards has maintained relatively significant support of from 10-15 points, though he too has declined a bit from 15% to 10%. More than enough to remain visible, but not yet a surge. His recent strong performance in Iowa polling suggests he may have more support where it counts, but again it is a long way to the caucus.

Other widely mentioned candidates have remained well below 10% in the polls. Some having dropped out already (Bayh, Feingold and Warner) while others soldier on (Biden, Clark, Dodd, Vilsack). And New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson continues to be mentioned though without a visible campaign.

So what has to be said remains that while candidacies may seem "inevitable" and others "doomed" by these numbers, the race is in fact far more winnable (and "losable") than polls 13 months or more out suggest. Remember that as late as early December 2003 Howard Dean was widely said to have the nomination sewed up and to be considering Vice-Presidential candidates.

Cross-posted at Political Arithmetik.

 

Comments
CK:

I don't think the national polls are a good method for determining the actual front runner in these races. If you look at how familiar people are with Obama in most of those national polls, Obama is still under fifty percent for "knows alot or some."

The REAL front runner is determined by who is leading in those first few primaries and caucusses.

Last Iowa poll has Edwards and Obama tied. Last New Hampshire has Hillary and Obama tied. There's a legitimate case to be made that there is no front runner (or there are three) or that Obama is the front runner by a nose.

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Exactly. One thing that hasn't been posted on this site is the head-to-head Presidential matchup results among those same Iowa and New Hampshire voters polled. In both NH and IA, Obama beats McCain AND Guiliani in the general. Clinton loses to both Republicans in both states, and Edwards is about even with both R's in NH and ahead of them in IA.

This is all great news for Obama and quite good news for Edwards.

And although it is true that Obama has not eclipsed Hillary yet in the national poll, that has to also be seen as a positive for him; after all, it's a piece of evidence that he's NOT peaking too early. Having Obama clearly ahead nationally before the end of 2006 would make him too big a target for criticism too early. His ascent has been quick, no question, but every extra day he's the underdog on the rise and Hillary is the frontrunner in the crosshairs is good for his campaign in the long run. There is really no more ideal situation for him than to be pulling ahead in the battleground states, which ups the interest among activists nationwide and increases donations, but at the same time be incrementally meandering up in the national polls, leaving Hillary to wear the "frontrunner" bulls eye in the news media for months.

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You can make a credible case, based on the more important early state polls (rather than national numbers) that Obama is the front-runner. While I agree it is too early to make such a claim, it is at least supported by the fact that he is the only candidate showing strength in both Iowa and NH. Edwards shows strength in Iowa, Hillary still in the top tier in NH, but only Obama does well in both states. Taken together, that makes him at least an arguable front-runner.

The really interesting thing to watch will be at what point does the bubble of Hillary Clinton begin to dawn on the media? Many, particularly in the NY based media, want her to stay viable because it's good business covering her. But my guess is they will only catch on long after the voters have done so.

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I would also add that the head-to-head match ups on electability Dem vs Republican are particularly unwelcome for Team Hillary. They have spent the last 2 years trying to convince the media that upstate New York somehow resembles rural red state America, and that her margin upstate would be a proxy for her viability as a presidential candidate in exurban and rural areas elsewhere. This was always dubious because upstate NY resembles more the industrialized upper midwest and great lakes regions more than, say, southern Ohio. But November's results showed that while Hillary performed well in NY, she actually did not beat Chuck Schumer's margins--and Schumer only had to spend half the money she did. Still, this mistaken idea that her support in upsate New York counties should convince primary voters of her electability for president persists. But these recent head-to-head match up numbers showing Edwards and Obama more competitive with McCain/Rudy will probably end up shattering that notion.

In any case, their argument about upstate New York can only really be tested by playing in Iowa. As a result, there will be too much pressure to prove that case for Clinton to skip Iowa, or even to be able to downplay any result there. After all, we have been assured by Penn, Grunewald, Wolfson, et al. (in making their case for the general election) that upstate New York looks a lot like Iowa! OK, show us...

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Dave:

Kim's statements about Hillary Clinton's electability are quite bizzare. Hillary performs far better than Obama in head to head matchups against McCain and Giuliani, even after months of glowing 100% positive PR in which everyone projected their ideal candidate onto a man with hardly any record or leadership experience. Furthermore, we should not forget the minority candidates tend to poll better than they actually perform in general elections, and subtract 2-4 points from Obama's total in every general election poll. (e.g., Michael Steele, Cruz Bustamante, Bobby Jindal, Carl McCall)

She also says that "Team Hillary" claims "that upstate New York somehow resembles rural red state America, and that her margin upstate would be a proxy for her viability as a presidential candidate in exurban and rural areas elsewhere."

I must have missed Hillary's camp saying she would win exburbs and far red states. In fact she is quite correct in saying that Upstate New York, which she won by a huge margin, is similar in its culture and economy to swing states like IA, NH, PA, OH, MN, MI and WI. In fact these states represent nearly all of the close states, the exceptions being NM, CO and the increasingly out-of-reach FL.

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Dave said: "Kim's statements about Hillary Clinton's electability are quite bizzare. Hillary performs far better than Obama in head to head matchups against McCain and Giuliani"


No, that's completely incorrect. And Kim's statements only seem bizarre to you because she took the time to read my post and you didn't; as I just mentioned above, Obama beats McCain and Guiliani in head to head match ups in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and Hillary loses to both Republicans in both states.

The numbers were posted on polltracker today if you don't take my word for it: http://electioncentral.tpmcafe.com/polltracker

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Dave said: "Kim's statements about Hillary Clinton's electability are quite bizzare. Hillary performs far better than Obama in head to head matchups against McCain and Giuliani"


No, that's completely incorrect. And Kim's statements only seem bizarre to you because she took the time to read my post and you didn't; as I just mentioned above, Obama beats McCain and Guiliani in head-to-head match ups in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and Hillary loses to both Republicans in both states:


Iowa

Obama (D) 42%, McCain (R) 39%
Clinton (D) 37%, McCain (R) 43%
Obama (D) 43%, Giuliani (R) 38%
Clinton (D) 35%, Giuliani (R) 39%


New Hampshire

Obama (D) 47%, McCain (R) 43%
Clinton (D) 43%, McCain (R) 46%
Obama (D) 46%, Giuliani (R) 39%
Clinton (D) 38%, Giuliani (R) 42%


The numbers were posted on polltracker today if you don't take my word for it: http://electioncentral.tpmcafe.com/polltracker

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Scott Carlson:

Will someone please tell me why on earth Guiliani is riding the coat tails of 3,000 dead americans. What did this guy do that catapaulted him into the american psyche
like he was Dwight Eisenhower. How did he unite the country that day? The heinous act itself was enough to unite this nation.
He was not the one who rallied this country.
A plane crashing into those buildings did.
We were united the second those planes hit.
Like we wouldn't have been united without him. What a joke. We needed Sir Guliani to bring us together. Gimme a break.

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