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Analysis: Don't bet the presidency on polls 1 year out

  • Story Highlights
  • Democratic front-runners one year before election usually stumble
  • Walter Mondale and Al Gore only dems to lead polls one year out and win
  • Republican front-runner one year out usually wins nomination
  • Sen. Clinton's dominant lead may reverse trend
  • Next Article in Politics »
By Bill Schneider
CNN senior political analyst
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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- It's one year until Election Day 2008. Do the current polls tell us anything a year before the election? Yes, they tell us something, but you have to be careful.

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Al Gore was the last front-runner one year out to win the Democratic nomination.

The polls tell us Sen. Hillary Clinton is the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination and Rudy Giuliani's the Republican front-runner. So is it all over, before it even begins?

Be careful with a poll, says New Hampshire Institute of Politics Director Paul Manuel. "It's not a predictor. It's a tool. It's a useful way to understand what's happening at that moment and nothing more."

Let's look at the record of polls taken a year before the election.

Polls predicting the Democratic nominees have mostly been wrong. Surveys taken in November 1971 predicted the Democrats would nominate Edward Kennedy or Edmund Muskie. In 1972, the Democrats nominated George McGovern.

In November 1975, the polls predicted Kennedy again. The next year, the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter.

In early November 1979, the polls predicted Kennedy would defeat Carter for the Democratic nomination. He didn't.

In 1987, Jesse Jackson was the Democratic front-runner. In 1988, Michael Dukakis was the Democratic nominee.Video Watch the accuracy of previous year-ahead predictions »

Mario Cuomo led the Democratic field in November 1991. In 1992, the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton.

Howard Dean was well on his way to getting the Democratic nomination in November 2003, until John Kerry took it away from him.

Only twice have polls the year before correctly predicted the Democratic nominee. Walter Mondale in 1983 and Al Gore in 1999. Both won the nomination the following year. And both were current or former vice presidents.

On the Republican side, the polls have almost always been right the year before. They predicted Ronald Reagan's nomination in 1980, George H.W. Bush's nomination in 1988, Bob Dole's in 1996 and George W. Bush's in 2000.

Republican polls a year out got it wrong only once, in 1976. The polls in 1975 predicted Reagan. The next year Republicans nominated incumbent President Gerald Ford.

In the past, the Republican nominating process has usually been an orderly succession. Predictable. The Democrats have had a free-for-all. Unpredictable.

"Historically, the Democrats have been an alliance of many different groups and the Republicans are a more narrow band," says Manuel.

If that's still true, the message to Republicans is, it's Rudy Giuliani. And to Democrats, don't bet on Hillary Clinton.

But is it still true? Don't bet on it.

This time, the Democratic front-runner has a bigger lead. And the Democrats say they're more satisfied with their choices. So this time, the Democrats look like they may have an orderly succession. And the Republicans may have a free-for-all. A topsy-turvy year.

When it comes to predicting the general election winner, the record of the polls a year out is actually pretty good.

A year before the election, polls predicted Reagan would defeat Mondale in 1984, Bush would defeat Dukakis in 1988, Clinton would beat Dole in 1996, Bush would defeat Gore -- by 16 points! -- in 2000 and Bush would beat Kerry in 2004.

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The year-before polls got it wrong twice. In 1979, the polls predicted Carter would beat Reagan. And in 1991, they predicted the first President Bush would defeat Bill Clinton.

In both cases, voters a year out expected the president to get re-elected. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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