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.