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Candidates In Donald Trump’s Position Have A Terrible Track Record

Polls show Donald Trump leading in the Republican presidential primary. He’s leading nationally. He’s leading in Iowa. He’s leading in New Hampshire. That’s right — Donald Trump may end up winning … “Polling Leader for the Summer of 2015.”

Is that a worthwhile prize? Well, it depends. This may be an obvious point, but much of the media seems to be ignoring it: Leading the polls with 20 percent of the vote is not the same as leading with 40 percent or 50 percent or 60 percent.

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Take a look at the candidates who were leading in a summer average (June to August) of Iowa polls in primaries since 1980 that did not have an incumbent running:

SUMMER LEADER IN IOWA POLLS
PRIMARY PARTY POLL LEADER POLL AVERAGE NOMINEE
1988 Democratic Dick Gephardt 16% No
2004 Democratic Dick Gephardt 23 No
2012 Republican Michele Bachmann 23 No
2008 Democratic John Edwards 26 No
2008 Republican Mitt Romney 28 No
1988 Republican Bob Dole 32 No
1992 Democratic Tom Harkin 34 No
1996 Republican Bob Dole 34 Yes
2000 Republican George W. Bush 39 Yes
1980 Republican Ronald Reagan 40 Yes
1984 Democratic Walter Mondale 45 Yes
2000 Democratic Al Gore 62 Yes

Not surprisingly, the leaders who had the highest percentages of the vote in summer Iowa polls were far more likely to win their party’s nomination than those who had lower shares. In fact, no summer front-runner with less than 33 percent in Iowa (six in total) went on to win the nomination. Trump’s at 19.3 percent in the Real Clear Politics average.

The reverse has also held. Every summer leader in Iowa above 33 percent went on to win the nomination, except for home-stater Tom Harkin. (Hillary Clinton is currently sitting at 50.5 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa surveys; she was only at 25 percent the summer before the 2008 primary.)

To be clear, 33 percent isn’t some sort of magic cutoff; the point is simply that all “front-runners” are not created equal.

Trump’s New Hampshire standing is nothing outstanding either. Unlike in Iowa, most New Hampshire polling leaders went on to win the nomination, but almost all were polling well ahead of Trump. He’s at 24.5 percent right now in the Real Clear Politics average, which (when rounded) is equal to the all-time lowest summer leader in the nine New Hampshire primaries we have polling for (we don’t have summer survey data for either party in 1988 or for the Democrats in 19921). The only two summer polling leaders with less than 30 percent in New Hampshire lost the nomination.

SUMMER LEADER IN NEW HAMPSHIRE POLLS
PRIMARY PARTY POLL LEADER POLL AVERAGE NOMINEE
2004 Democratic Howard Dean 25% No
2008 Republican Mitt Romney 28 No
2012 Republican Mitt Romney 32 Yes
2008 Democratic Hillary Clinton 35 No
1984 Democratic Walter Mondale 38 Yes
2000 Republican George W. Bush 44 Yes
2000 Democratic Al Gore 45 Yes
1996 Republican Bob Dole 46 Yes
1980 Republican Ronald Reagan 50 Yes

Nationally, Trump is the front-runner, with 22.5 percent in the Real Clear Politics average. But the history of summer front-runners in national polls looks a lot like what we saw in New Hampshire and Iowa.

SUMMER LEADER IN NATIONAL POLLS
PRIMARY PARTY POLL LEADER POLL AVERAGE NOMINEE
2004 Democratic Joe Lieberman 17% No
2012 Republican Mitt Romney 21 Yes
1992 Democratic Mario Cuomo 22 No
1988 Democratic Gary Hart 25 No
2008 Republican Rudy Giuliani 29 No
1984 Democratic Walter Mondale 35 Yes
1988 Republican George H.W. Bush 36 Yes
1980 Republican Ronald Reagan 37 Yes
2008 Democratic Hillary Clinton 39 No
1996 Republican Bob Dole 45 Yes
2000 Republican George W. Bush 53 Yes
2000 Democratic Al Gore 58 Yes

Now, you might say that Trump’s lead, however slight, is more impressive with 17 candidates vying for the Republican nomination. Here’s the thing: We’ve had large fields before, even if not quite as large as this one. The 1988 Democratic field, 2000 Republican field and 2008 Republican field each featured more than 10 candidates, for instance. In 2000’s crowded GOP field, George W. Bush still managed to run up the margin.

The non-Trumps are earning about 80 percent of the vote. That’s a bad sign for him. The percentage of the vote that Trump is now earning in Iowa and nationally isn’t indicative of a front-runner who is particularly likely to win the nomination.

Footnotes

  1. George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis led the 1988 Republican and Democratic primary contests, respectively, with 35 percent in a mid-September poll. Both won the nomination. Paul Tsongas, who lost the 1992 Democratic nomination, led a late October poll with only 24 percent of the vote. ^

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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