The George Washington Bridge scandal has subtly reshaped the contest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, hurting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s chances and leaving the field without a clear front-runner. The pack is now huddled in the low teens, according to polls of GOP voters.
How rare is such an evenly divided field? I checked polling since 1976, the first year in which both the Republican and Democratic nominations were decided completely by voters and not by party leaders.
In surveys conducted from January through March of the preceding midterm election year (so for the 2012 election, we’re looking at polls from Jan. 1 through March 31 of 2010), the Republican atop the polls has always averaged at least 23 percent of the vote.
But not this year. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a presidential aspirant in 2008, leads current polling with 14.8 percent. Even if we include Democratic nomination contests, 14.8 percent basically ties for the lowest leader on record (right near the 15 percent Mario Cuomo had in 1992).
The table below shows the top five potential candidates by election year according to polling averages from the first three months of the preceding midterm year. Some candidates were only included in some of the nomination polls conducted during that period. (For some early years, we have only one or two polls. The years left blank for either party represent cycles when there was no polling data.)
|GOP candidate||Incl./ Tot. Polls||Avg.||DEM candidate||Incl./ Tot. Polls||Avg.|
|1976||Gerald Ford||(1/1)||24.0||Ted Kennedy||(2/2)||31.5|
|Ronald Reagan||(1/1)||20.0||George Wallace||(2/2)||20.0|
|Nelson Rockefeller||(1/1)||18.0||Henry Jackson||(2/2)||12.0|
|John Connally||(1/1)||9.0||Edmund Muskie||(2/2)||9.0|
|Charles Percy||(1/1)||8.0||George McGovern||(2/2)||6.0|
|1980||Ronald Reagan||(1/1)||45.0||Ted Kennedy||(1/1)||36.0|
|Gerald Ford||(1/1)||35.0||Jimmy Carter||(1/1)||29.0|
|Howard Baker||(1/1)||7.0||Jerry Brown||(1/1)||12.0|
|John Connally||(1/1)||5.0||Walter Mondale||(1/1)||8.0|
|George Bush / Bob Dole||(1/1)||2.0||Henry Jackson||(1/1)||5.0|
|1988||George H.W. Bush||(2/2)||31.0||Gary Hart||(2/2)||32.1|
|Bob Dole||(2/2)||12.5||Mario Cuomo||(2/2)||14.8|
|Howard Baker||(2/2)||11.9||Lee Iacocca||(2/2)||13.0|
|Alexander Haig||(2/2)||6.2||Jesse Jackson||(2/2)||6.7|
|Jack Kemp||(2/2)||5.0||Bill Bradley||(2/2)||6.0|
|1992||George H.W. Bush||(1/1)||65.0||Mario Cuomo||(1/1)||15.0|
|Bob Dole||(1/1)||7.0||Michael Dukakis||(1/1)||13.0|
|Liz Dole||(1/1)||4.0||Jesse Jackson||(1/1)||14.0|
|Dan Quayle||(1/1)||5.0||Llloyd Bentsen||(1/1)||9.0|
|Jack Kemp||(1/1)||4.0||Gary Hart / Bill Bradley||(1/1)||4.0|
|2000||George W. Bush||(3/3)||23.3||Al Gore||(1/1)||45.0|
|Colin Powell||(1/3)||16.0||Bill Bradley||(1/1)||14.0|
|Liz Dole||(3/3)||12.0||Dick Gephardt||(1/1)||8.0|
|Jack Kemp||(3/3)||8.3||Bob Kerrey||(1/1)||4.0|
|2008||Rudy Giuliani||(4/4)||26.5||Hillary Clinton||39.8|
|John McCain||(4/4)||24.5||John Kerry||12.8|
|Condi Rice||(1/4)||22.0||Al Gore||13.7|
|Newt Gingrich||(3/4)||6.7||John Edwards||13.5|
|Bill Frist||(4/4)||4.5||Joe Biden||5.0|
|2016||Mike Huckabee||(6/9)||14.8||Hillary Clinton||(5/5)||67.0|
|Chris Christie||(9/9)||13.0||Joe Biden||(5/5)||10.2|
|Jeb Bush||(9/9)||12.2||Liz Warren||(4/5)||6.8|
|Rand Paul||(9/9)||11.1||Andrew Cuomo||(4/5)||3.0|
|Paul Ryan||(9/9)||10.9||Cory Booker||(2/5)||2.5|
While the GOP is more divided than usual this cycle, Democrats are more united. Hillary Clinton has 67 percent in the polls, more than the top five Republicans’ average support combined. Clinton is polling stronger than any contender in the modern era on either side, including incumbent presidents George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Jimmy Carter in 1980. For non-incumbents, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Al Gore in 2000, each with 45 percent support at this point, come closest to Clinton.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the difference between Huckabee and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who ranks fifth according to polls, is only 4 percentage points. That’s by far the most tightly packed the top five candidates have been in our sample. No other year has a first-to-fifth gap less than 10 points.
The difference between first and fifth on the Democratic side is 65 percentage points. That’s the widest gap on record.
Early polling doesn’t always predict how well a candidate will do. Rudy Giuliani was ahead at this time in the 2008 cycle, but he didn’t win a single primary. Even in years when the leader at this point in the cycle went on to win the nomination, the actual percentage earned by the winner didn’t match the early polling. Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 weren’t that far ahead at this point, and they won their primaries by a mile.
On the Democratic side, one look at the chart and you see that many eventual nominees (like Barack Obama in 2008) weren’t in the top five at this point — some weren’t even polled.
Polls conducted more than two years before a presidential election don’t tell us all that much about the eventual vote percentages. But they do tell us that the Democratic and Republican fields for 2016 each look very unusual at this point in the race. The Republican picture is unusually muddled, and the Democratic picture is unusually clear.