Three months out from the first 2020 primary season contests, Joe Biden leads the Democratic pack in most polls, followed closely by Elizabeth Warren, with rivals like Pete Buttigieg further back.
But that may not last, according to recent political history.
Only three of the last seven Democratic presidential nominees led national primary polls in November or December before primary contests began. And all three had much larger leads than Biden’s current 7.2% lead over Warren in the RealClearPolitics average of primary polls.
“We have never had a candidate who was ahead in the polls this far out who has ever gone on to be president,” Democratic presidential hopeful and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is stuck in the low single digits in most national polls, said in September.
“The candidates that win from our party that energize the kind of movement elections we want to see are folks that were considered long shots at this point. Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama were all behind,” Booker said.
Most recently, Hillary Clinton led the Democratic field through the entirety of her 2016 campaign, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, her most serious challenger, never passed her in RealClearPolitics’ polling average. She led Sanders by more than 20 points in November 2015.
Vice President Al Gore was the next most recent longtime front-runner to become the Democratic presidential nominee. He consistently led presidential primary polls by double digits throughout 1999, with a November Gallup poll finding him at 58% and closest competitor former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley at 33%.
Former vice president and 1984 presidential nominee Walter Mondale held a decent lead over John Glenn and large lead over Colorado Sen. Gary Hart for the entirety of 1983. Mondale polled in the mid-40% range with Ohio Sen. Glenn in the low 20s and Hart in the single digits that November, according to a 2008 paper examining primary polling data.
Other Democratic presidential primary races in recent history were more dramatic, with the eventual nominee trailing in the polls in the months before the Iowa caucuses.
Having gained name recognition from his 1984 bid, Hart launched his 1988 presidential campaign as the front-runner, dropped out after his campaign was derailed by accusations of an extramarital affair, and then reentered the race in December and regained front-runner status. A December 1987 New York Times/CBS national poll had him a 21%, Rev. Jesse Jackson at 17%, and Gov. Michael Dukakis at 9%. Dukakis came in third in the Iowa Caucuses, won the New Hampshire primary, and eventually became the Democratic presidential nominee.
In the 1992 race, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo led in national polls throughout 1991 despite never launching a presidential campaign, but polling among declared candidates showed a much tighter race. Former (and future) California Gov. Jerry Brown had a 13% average while eventual nominee Bill Clinton and other candidates polled in the single digits, according to FiveThirtyEight. Arkansas Gov. Clinton placed second in the New Hampshire primary but did not start to consistently win state primary contests until mid-March 1992.
John Kerry, the eventual 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, consistently came in fourth or fifth place in national Democratic presidential polls conducted in November 2003. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was the front-runner at the time, but negative campaigning between him and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt took a toll on both campaigns, making way for Kerry to win Iowa and nearly all state nominating contests.
Barack Obama was behind Hillary Clinton in the polls for the entirety of 2007 — by more than 20 points in November of that year, according to RealClearPolitics’ average. The Illinois senator didn’t catch up to his Senate colleague from New York in the national polling average until after winning the Iowa Caucuses.
The tight, volatile races give mid and bottom-tier candidates hope that they can gain traction in the final weeks or months of the campaign, either with a “breakout moment” or by capitalizing off competitors’ stumbles and surging.
Early state polls rather than national polls may provide a clearer indication of changing voter preferences. University of New Hampshire professors Dante J. Scala and Andrew E. Smith found in their 2008 paper that “New Hampshire polls, conducted in a state where voters receive far more news about the candidates and pay a great deal of attention to the campaign, are much more sensitive to changes in the dynamics of the nomination contest than national surveys.”
Biden is currently in fourth place behind Warren, Buttigieg, and Sanders in RealClearPolitics’ average of Iowa polls. He is in second place behind Warren in its average of New Hampshire polls.
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