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Watch Out, Joe Biden, Polls Aren’t Kind To Candidates Who Enter Late

The Joe Biden buzz seems to be getting louder by the day. A Biden presidential run would be bad news for Hillary Clinton — even though he’s sitting in third place in Iowa, New Hampshire and national primary polls, behind both Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But if he runs, will the vice president get a big announcement bounce?

Let’s look at nine serious primary candidacies since 1980 for candidates who could be defined as late entrants. I’m mostly using the same list that my colleague Nate Silver used in 2011 when trying to determine the “price” of entering late.1 Ominously, none of the candidates Nate looked at won the nomination, nor did Rick Perry win his 2012 bid, which I’ve added to the list. Nate defined a late entrant “as a candidate who began raising money at least one quarter later than the average of the other candidates in his party that year.” If Biden gets in, he’ll meet that definition; Biden hasn’t fundraised for a potential 2016 bid.

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I’ve plotted the nine campaigns’ national polling trendlineslocal regression set to a smoothing parameter of 0.30. In doing so, I’m trying to account for a polling spike, while at the same time not being too sensitive to polling noise.

">2 from 90 days before they announced to 90 days after.

Big bounces

Wesley Clark, 2004 — Clark had never held elected office when he declared his candidacy on Sept. 17, 2003, so he’s not the best comp for Biden, the sitting vice president. (Clark was the former general and supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe.) Barely any polling had been conducted before he got into the race, but perhaps because he was unknown previously and Democrats were preparing to take on a wartime president, Clark jumped from the low single digits 20 days before his announcement to 15 percent 20 days after. Of course, he couldn’t sustain it; Clark’s support was already eroding, falling closer to 10 percent, 90 days after he took the plunge.

Rick Perry, 2012 — Biden could find more hope in Perry’s first bid for the presidency. Perry, the longtime Texas governor, flirted with a presidential bid during the summer of 2011 before officially getting in on Aug. 13, 2011. Perry’s support steadily climbed in the polls during all the anticipation (as Biden’s has during the past few months) and maxed out at about an average of 25 percent 16 days after he entered the race. Perry was undone by a series of awful debate performances. Maybe Perry was ill-prepared for the debates because he entered the race so late — in which case Biden would have reason to worry too — but Perry’s downfall seemed mostly of his own making. If Biden enters the race, he’ll be hoping for a Perry-level bounce.

Small bounces

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, 1984 and 1988 — Just as with Clark, Jackson’s bids might not tell us much in regard to Biden. Biden is a longtime national politician, and Jackson had never held elected office. Still, in both his campaigns, Jackson did slightly better in polls taken after his announcement than in those taken before. He saw a somewhat larger bump in 1988 than in 1984, climbing about 5 percentage points to 20 percent before falling back to 17.5 percent 90 days after declaring.

Fred Thompson, 2008 — This may be the most troubling example for Biden. Thompson, like Biden, was labeled a “white knight” — a backstop to supposedly struggling establishment candidates — who could ride in and save the party. Thompson toyed with a run for much of the summer of 2007 before getting in on Sept. 5, 2007. Thompson was polling in the high teens (about where Biden is) just before he announced. He got to 20 percent and then fell like a stone. Thompson was hanging on to just 12 percent 90 days after getting into the race.

No real bounce

George McGovern, 1984, Pat Robertson, 1988, Steve Forbes, 1996, Orrin Hatch, 20003 — All of these candidates were in the low-to-mid single digits before they announced and stayed there after. These examples shouldn’t warm Biden’s heart, but they shouldn’t chill it either: Biden would be a very different candidate.

McGovern, despite being the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, had lost his Senate seat in 1980 and was not polling well before he entered the 1984 race. Many in the press thought his run was ridiculous, which clearly isn’t the case with Biden.

Robertson was a television pastor and evangelist who appealed to only a fraction of his party. Biden has partywide appeal.

Forbes was a multimillionaire with no electoral experience who only saw his national numbers go up long after he got into the race. That is, when he spent a lot of money on advertisements.

Hatch was polling at 0 percent in a field with an even more dominant front-runner (George W. Bush) in the polls than Clinton. Still, Hatch’s bid does show that even high-ranking government officials (Hatch was a sitting U.S. senator) will get into races they probably shouldn’t.

Late entrants have had a mixed record, so Biden will have to hope he’s more like Rick Perry than Fred Thompson. Because one thing is clear: To win, Biden would have to do better in the polls than he’s doing right now.


Read More: Joe Biden Made the Right Call


  1. I’m not counting Ted Kennedy in 1980 because he was running in a primary against an incumbent president, Jimmy Carter.

  2. Specifically, I’m using a local regression set to a smoothing parameter of 0.30. In doing so, I’m trying to account for a polling spike, while at the same time not being too sensitive to polling noise.

  3. I’m not including Ted Kennedy in this analysis, but in case you were wondering, he would go in this section. Kennedy went backward in polling after his announcement in 1979 for the 1980 Democratic nomination.

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