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In Presidential Contests, Spring & Summer Polls Tend to Favor Party Out of Power

Posted by GayPatriotWest at 10:08 pm - April 2, 2008.
Filed under: 2008 Presidential Politics,American History

With most recent polls showing Republican nominee-elect John McCain with a slight lead (or just behind) either of his potential Democratic rivals for the fall campaign, I wondered how previous candidates had fared in the polls when their party had been ahead been in power for the preceding two terms.

As I recalled, it seemed that the candidate of the out-of-party power had, at this point in the campaign, enjoyed a healthy lead over the candidate of the incumbent party. That turned out to be only partially true. In those years, 1976, 1988 & 2000, the candidate of the non-incumbent party wasn’t always ahead at this point in the campaign, but would be by mid-May.

This year, there’s an important difference; in the elections mentioned above, the non-incumbent party had settled on a nominee at this point in the campaign. In 1976, while the incumbent party wouldn’t settle on its presidential nominee until the convention, by late spring, Jimmy Carter had emerged as the likely Democratic candidate.

By the summer of those election year, the candidate of the non-incumbent party enjoyed a healthy lead over the candidate of the incumbent party. In 1976, Carter led Ford by as much as 33 points. By mid-June 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic nominee-elect “held a 15-point lead over [then-]Vice President Bush,” his Republican rival. (Incidentally, at that time, “Poll respondents said by a 2-to-1 margin that it is time for the nation to change direction rather than follow the course set by President Reagan.”)

In 2000, while then-Vice President Gore and Texas Governor Bush were deadlocked in April, by mid-May, Bush had opened up an 8-point lead. (He would retain that lead — or something similar — until the Democratic convention in Los Angeles.)

In all three of those elections, the candidate of the incumbent party would close the gap, with Ford losing by just 2 points to Jimmy Carter in 1976, George H.W. Bush walloping Mike Dukakis by 8 points in 1988, and Al Gore edging George W. Bush in the popular vote in 2000.

If we see a similar trend this year, then John McCain should thump either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama this fall. It does seem that in the spring the incumbent party’s candidate doesn’t poll as well as the candidate of the out-of-power party.

Yet, as noted above, this year, that party, has not yet settled on a nominee, so there may be a different dynamic at play. Still, it should be of some comfort to John McCain that he’s more in the game now than have been most of his counterparts in previous years (provided his numbers don’t tumble next month).

Not only that. In 1988, George H.W. Bush, the then-sitting Vice-President, won in the fall despite a spring poll showing two-thirds of Americans favoring a change in direction.



  1. At this point, the election is certainly McCain’s to lose. He is quite capable of doing a number on himself. I think the Democrats have picked internal scabs that will not soon heal and will be dressing their self inflicted wounds for some time to come.

    What really intrigues me is whether McCain will stand up for McCain-Feingold and start legal action against talk radio, the blogs and e-mail in the 60 days before the election. Until McCain takes the pledge to veto any "fairness doctrine" that crosses his desk, I count him as a great enemy of free and protected political speech.

    Comment by heliotrope — April 3, 2008 @ 10:06 am - April 3, 2008

  2. This election cycle is just too unusual to predict.
     All I can say is, let the Dems keep on fighting each other.  Just because they are doing so, doesn’t guarantee McCain anything.  So far I like what I see in his campaign, but he doesn’t need to sway me, so I don’t know how it’s working on the undecided vote. I have a love-hate relationship with polls. All I can do is wait, and watch these fascinating events  unfold.

    Comment by Leah — April 3, 2008 @ 11:22 am - April 3, 2008

  3. Great post GP. In a year when the Republicans should have virtually no chance it could be a close race because of the incompetent and inexperienced Democrats.  I said from the start when there were 9 of em on the stage…"this is it, this is the best they have to offer?"Rarely do we vote for a THIRD TERM for the party with the Presidency. But the Dem Congress has been so disfunctional…they have lied about two of the few pledges they made. 1. Out of Iraq 2. Lower gas prices. So the Pelosi Reid combo hasn’t done the Democrat Presidential candidates any favors. The Dems lied about the "worst ecomomy in 50 years" when beating GHW Bush, they’ll lie now about a depression at the end of Bush 43’s term. I would defend by saying things were fine until the Pelosi cabal of crooks took over in ’07. The main reason Republicans lost the House in ’06 was because of corruption…how the Dems doing in that regard? I understand now Ms Stabenows (D) Michigan, husband was arrested for paying a whore. Wouldn’t it be easier to ask Dems in debates to raise their hands (Chris Matthews) if they HAVEN’T been to a whore in the past 12 months.

    Comment by Gene in Pennsylvania — April 3, 2008 @ 1:14 pm - April 3, 2008

  4. I’m not saying I agree with him, but Pat Caddell recently made an observation that may be of interest.  (If you’ve never heard of Caddell, he was Jimmy Carter’s pollster and is now frequently very critical of today’s Democratic Party.)

    He said there’s always a possibility that the drawn out nomination procees among Democrats could actually help Obama against John McCain.  His thinking is that, despite the nasty tone of the fight, there are some things Hillary simply will not, cannot say about fellow Democrat Obama.  So if the fight goes to the convention it will be almost Labor Day before voters hear these kind of charges.

    (Caddell’s assumption is that while the Democrats are fighting, most voters aren’t paying much attention to  John McCain.  So, even if McCain were to make these tough charges against Obama in the spring and summer, voters won’t hear them.) 

    If it’s not officially McCain vs Obama until Labor Day, when voters will start seriously paying attention to the campaigns they wage against each other, McCain wil have only two months to define Obama in the image McCain wants on the minds of the independents who will decide the election.

    Comment by Trace Phelps — April 3, 2008 @ 3:04 pm - April 3, 2008

  5. Trace, you ignore Operation Chaos at your own peril. Hillary’s campaign is being euchred and maneuvered with masterful deftness. Poor Obama is being forced to actually make statements of policy. He is now in the process of bleeding out from the accumulation of death by a thousand cuts. Hillary is only a useful, desperate harpy. The steady attention on Obama screw ups is coming from other places while giving credit to Hillary. Even Bill Clinton himself is quarterbacking in Operation Chaos. (His vanity keeps him from realizing it.)

    Comment by heliotrope — April 3, 2008 @ 6:21 pm - April 3, 2008

  6. I’ve observed at least over the past 10 years or so that Democrats do better in generic polls and farther out from the election. The closer the election gets the worse they do and the better Republicans do. Dems also do much better with the ignorant masses, hence the old trick of polling the generic, "Americans" instead of "voters" or "likely voters" to make the Dems look better.

    Comment by American Elephant — April 4, 2008 @ 5:16 am - April 4, 2008

  7. To "heliotrope": I’m not ignoring anything.  I opened my comment with a statement that I do not necessarily agree with Caddell; I simply thought his observation was something interesting to share with this site’s readers.

    I do think McCain will lose, for a variety of reasons, unless there’s a major terrorist incident.  If that happens all bets are off.

    While I believe Hillary would have a better chance against McCain than her opponent, I do believe Obama can also beat McCain.  Polls don’t mean much in the spring and once we get into the fall campaign McCain will have a hard time overcoming the sinking economy, opposition to the war in Iraq and the deep disappointment many voters feel about eight years of President Bush.

    (Speaking of bets:  one of my best friends, who happens to support McCain, and I have already agreed on a six-figure bet.  If McCain wins, I write hefty checks to my friend’s five favorite chaities.  If McCain loses, my friend writes hefty checks to my five favorite charities.)

    Comment by Trace Phelps — April 4, 2008 @ 3:28 pm - April 4, 2008

  8. Trace, I have not predicted the outcome of the November elections. I directed you to Operation Chaos. I think you may not know what that is.

    If you have bets above $10,000 at this point in the process, you either have money to burn or you have no real regard for the value of charity. I would never place ego on such a high dollar line when there are so many good things to be done for people in need. Certainly, you can find people within your reach who can benefit from your kindness and wealth. Color me disappointed. (Donations to charity are a cheap way of staying out of the hard work of helping your fellow man. Screw your $10,000+! Just show up at the shelter and provide your help and compassion. If you want to stroke a check or two, that is even better. Fie on your bank account bastardization of the meaning of charity. Your form of charity cheapens the giver and makes a monkey of the recipient.)

    Comment by heliotrope — April 4, 2008 @ 7:34 pm - April 4, 2008

  9. Bingo, heliotrope. Beautifully put.

    If "Trace Phelps" has the money to be writing "six-figure" checks to charities, he should be writing those to people who need it regardless of the election.

    It becomes even more hypocritical when one considers that all he ever whines about is how badly "the poor" have it and how they need more tax dollars — when, with a stroke of the pen, he could give "the poor" money WITHOUT putting additional tax burdens on working families.

    But then again, that would require him spending his own money, and as he’s already bragged, he’s not doing that unless he loses a bet.


    Comment by North Dallas Thirty — April 6, 2008 @ 2:43 am - April 6, 2008

  10. […] I learned in researching a previous post on polling, polls in May and June tend to show the candidate of the party out of power running far ahead of […]

    Pingback by GayPatriot » May polls & Presidential Elections — May 9, 2008 @ 5:39 pm - May 9, 2008

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