December 29, 2015

THE BEST IS YET TO COME:

Are Primary Polls Finally Predictive? No, but This Is When the Fun Starts (Nate Cohn, DEC. 29, 2015, 538)

In recent primary campaigns, going back to the 2004 Democratic primary, those candidates who have led in Iowa or New Hampshire polls with just one month to go have lost as often as they have won. On average, candidates' share of the vote at this stage differed from their final share of the vote by around seven percentage points. With many candidates running, it was not at all uncommon for a candidate to move by more.

The most extreme examples are just that. In 2004, John Edwards held 7 percent of the support in Iowa with a month to go; he won around 32 percent. In 2008, John McCain held 18 percent in New Hampshire; he won with 37 percent. In 2012 in Iowa, Rick Santorum held 5 percent; he won with 25 percent. Even the races that look fundamentally stable in comparison -- like the 2008 Democratic race in Iowa -- involved a come-from-behind victory over the last two weeks. Many of the candidates who surged over the last few weeks also outperformed their poll numbers on Election Day.

Perhaps the most striking thing about these huge, last-minute swings is that they often happen without anything huge triggering them. There were no epic debate performances or nationally televised implosions. Two of the candidates who entered the final month with the largest and most consistent leads over the previous few months -- Howard Dean in 2004 and Mitt Romney in New Hampshire in 2008 -- saw their leads evaporate without doing anything to get them in the history books. (The "Dean Scream" actually was emitted after he lost Iowa -- by 20 points.) Instead, many of these huge swings occur in the course of a seemingly normal month of campaigning.

How can a race change so much? The answer is that most voters have still not made up their minds by this stage.

Posted by at December 29, 2015 12:51 PM

  

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