Articles and Analysis


Primaries Past

Topics: The 2004 Race


A quick reminder not to assume what is today will be so tomorrow.

The 2004 Democratic primary race as of late July 2003 showed a continuous first place held by Lieberman, though with a slow but steady erosion. Kerry and Gephardt locked in a long running tie, and Howard Dean a rising 4th place at about 12% support. Clark's late entry and sharp rise hadn't happened. Edwards looked like a goner as his initial 9% had sunk to about 5%. So from this, who would be the candidates left standing after Iowa?

But of course the dynamics changed. Between summer and late fall, Dean became the "inevitable" nominee, sparking talk of running mates and gaining Gore's December endorsement. Kerry by that point was under 10%.

And then Iowa happened, and support shifted dramatically to Kerry and Edwards and away from Dean. (And Gephardt and Lieberman were gone.)

To those who say this is clear evidence that early polling is useless, I'd say no-- early polling is reflecting the dynamics of the race. But the dynamics are highly fluid and the point of the polling is not to predict the winner from today's polls, but to understand how the race is moving and ultimately to look back at how we got to the final outcome.

The great mistake analysts make is to look at current polls and conclude from them that the dynamics are fixed. That Dean can't rise. That Dean is a lock. That Kerry was inevitable after all. The current Democratic race appears, as of last week's polling, to be relatively static. And compared to the Republicans that is certainly true. But let's not jump to the conclusion that the polls after Labor Day have to look like today's just because today's look like June 1. The polls are of interest for what they show about the history of the race so far and how it stands today. Not for their ability to predict what happens in a month or two.

Cross-posted at Political Arithmetik.



Thanks so much for posting this! I was looking for just such a chart last night. Great stuff.



Kerry was in first place in the early 2003 polls and ended up winning. It was only the midyear polls that were wrong, reflecting the near collapse of Kerry's campaign and Dean's temporary rise, not all the polls.

In any case there was no incumbent in 2004's democratic primary. There is a de-facto incumbent this time, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Everbody else is a challenger to her and the polls show that, and this isn't going to change.


Jerome Armstrong:

To an extent, this is correct; but each election is also different in otherways. I'm thinking of two that add credibility more to the polls at this time. First, I believe, but have not confirmed, that there are many more this go round at this time than before. Second, I've seen this verified by polling, that people are paying attention much more at this point in time than before.



Those 2004 Democratic polls actually look more like this year's Republican race, where the whole field is declining and nobody can solidify more than 20% to 25% support.

That's a very different dynamic than a front-runner cruising along at a steady 35% to 40%.



To 9:07 PM: Actually, Kerry led in very few national polls in 2003, whether early, middle, or late in the year. He led a few, and was close in some others, but it would not be accurate to say he was in first place generally in the early 2003 polls.

For proof, you can find a large sample of Democratic primary polls for the 2004 nomination here and here.



Based on that chart, do you believe Dean's numbers began to fall after the "Dean scream" on January 24, 2004? Or did he begin to crumble before that?

To those who don't remember, the Dean scream was some kind of Edwards' haircut on steroids, when the corporate media incessantly attacked Dean for trying to rally his supporters with a passionate scream after losing to Kerr and Edwards in Iowa. Needless to say, a scream is irrelevant to whether or not a candidate would do a good job as a president; but the mainstream media is a conveyor belt of attacks from the right-wing media. i.e. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, National Review, etc.
According to this student publication, the scream scene "was shown an estimated 633 times by cable and broadcast news networks in just four days following the incident, a number that does not include talk shows and local news broadcasts".
CNN even had to admit that it "overplayed" Dean's scream.

The media is why I believe Republicans will win the presidential elections again in '08.



Obviously each primary has its own dynamic, so one should not look to a chart like this in order to try to forecast the likely dynamics in this race (although as an aside, to the extent that the concept of a "de factor incumbent" makes sense at all, would not Lieberman, the Democrat's 2000 VP nominee, be the "de facto incumbent" in 2004?).

But I do think a chart like this helps confirm the somewhat obvious hypothesis that primary polls tend to get more volatile as the primaries approach, and then can get even more volatile once the primaries actually start, until a clear winner emerges. Indeed, I think that applies equally well to the Republican side, and so I wouldn't be surprised if the polling in that contest became extremely volatile, including perhaps for a long period into the actual primaries.



I think the 08 GOP primary has very similar dynamics to the 04 Dems, looking at the data up to mid year. The Guiliani/Lieberman parallels are clear, a front-runner clearly out of step with his own party. McCain could be either Gephardt or Kerry at this point, a presumed top tier who either sputters out completely or rockets to the nomination. Romney is a bit like Dean or Edwards (no insult to Howard Dean or John Edwards intended), and Fred Thompson could be the Wesley Clark in many ways.


patrick thompson:

Great illustration of how far away we potentially are from a candidate. With that said, I believe the dynamics are different here. There are two clear front-runners, both of which can win the nomination - Clinton and Obama. There is a high degree of satisfaction and confidence among primary voters for these two candidates. If there is a surprise in this race, it'll be Obama-mania having legs and after 'surprise wins' in NH and SC, everything else breaks that way.

Edwards, Richardson, Kerry, Gore? Not this time....

Patrick Thompson
Hightstown, NJ


Mil Nzemba:

I predict Obama will take NH, SC and IL. thats a guarantie.
But the for the rest, I don't know.
NY, IO, CA will be a good fight - but I predict Obama will take one of those states. Potentially IO or CA.


Jeff Morgan:

Hey guys don't forget that campaign machines may not unload on the public until December-January. Hence most people will hear messages they haven't heard and all that.


I just would not like to see what will it happen if things keep going that way


I just would not like to see what will it happen if things keep going that way


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