Skip to main content
ABC News
The Price of Running Late, Part 1

As I wrote last week, there are some inappropriate precedents when considering what sort of penalty might be paid by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, or other potential Republican candidates like Sarah Palin, for entering the presidential race late.

Ronald Reagan did not officially announce his 1980 campaign until November 1979 — but he was running for all intents and purposes from early on in 1979. Bill Clinton did not officially begin his 1992 campaign until October 1991 — but he had established an exploratory committee well before that, and his pace was fairly typical for Democratic candidates that year. These are not useful comparisons.

There are, however, roughly nine candidates since 1980 who have entered the nomination race substantially later than most others in their field. We’ll take a qualitative look at these candidates today, then a more quantitative one in a follow-up post on Tuesday or Wednesday.

The benchmark that I’m using to define a late entrant is the pace of a candidate’s fund-raising. Why? Because it’s a substantive sign of when a campaign has become active, whether or not the candidate has officially declared — and because there’s relatively solid data on it. Candidates like Reagan were raising money, soliciting endorsements, hiring staff, making appearances on the stump and in the news media, and doing pretty much everything else that a presidential campaign ought to be doing well in advance of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on their formal entry into the race. Some other candidates, however, really did lag behind. Fund-raising data lets us know when a campaign became active de facto, rather than de jure.

Specifically, I’m looking at in which quarter of the year before an election a candidate first reported having raised money to the Federal Election Commission. In the 1996 election cycle, for example, the campaigns of Bob Dole, Richard G. Lugar, Lamar Alexander, Robert K. Dornan, Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan and Arlen Specter first reported having raised money in the first quarter of 1995. The campaigns of Alan L. Keyes and Pete Wilson first brought in money in the second quarter of 1995. And Steve Forbes began to bring in money in the third quarter.

I define 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. So Mr. Forbes, for instance, would qualify as a late entrant in the 1996 cycle.

I also apply a viability threshold. In order to meet it, a candidate has to have appeared in at least one quarterly F.E.C. report in the pre-election year, and has to have been mentioned by name in at least one public poll. These are not very stringent criteria, but they do eliminate the Lyndon LaRouches of the world.

This leaves a total of nine legitimate candidates since 1980 who can properly be thought of as late entrants. A description of each of their experiences follows. I’ve also rendered a “verdict” for each candidate, which is an attempt to evaluate whether and how their late entry may have hurt their campaigns.

Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat, 1980

Anticipation and announcement: The prospect of an iconic politician like Ted Kennedy challenging a sitting Democratic president was naturally going to attract its share of attention, and his potential entry into the race was the subject of hundreds of news articles as far back as mid-1978. Mr. Kennedy delayed his official decision time and time again, however, while at the same time running something of a shadow campaign against President Carter (although not raising money). He did not officially announce his candidacy until Nov. 7, 1979.

Polling. Mr. Kennedy led Mr. Carter in all but one poll of Democratic voters from May 1978 through the announcement of his campaign in November 1979. He continued to lead Mr. Carter in polls conducted immediately after his announcement, but Mr. Carter pulled ahead by the end of November and retained the national polling lead for the rest of the campaign.

Results. Even after Mr. Kennedy lost his national polling lead, both Iowa and New Hampshire represented good opportunities — in Iowa because its caucuses are dominated by relatively liberal Democratic activists, and in New Hampshire because Mr. Kennedy was from neighboring Massachusetts. However, Mr. Kennedy quickly faded in Iowa, first in the polls and then in the actual voting, where he finished with 31 percent of the vote to Mr. Carter’s 59 percent.

As late as January 1980, Mr. Carter’s campaign was still preparing to concede victory to Mr. Kennedy in New Hampshire, but Mr. Kennedy’s poor showing in Iowa reversed the outcome there as well, and he finished second there with a disappointing 37 percent of the vote.

As Mr. Carter’s national standing, buoyed initially by the Iranian hostage crisis, began to fade again in March 1980, Mr. Kennedy caught something of a second wind, eventually winning 12 states, but he lost the nomination after a floor flight at the Democratic Convention.

Verdict. This is a challenging race to evaluate because of the coincidence of three events within a short period of time in early November 1979: Mr. Kennedy’s formal entry into the race, the emergence of the Iranian hostage crisis, and a well-known interview that Mr. Kennedy gave to CBS’s Roger Mudd immediately prior to his formal announcement, in which he was inarticulate when asked why he wanted to be president. In addition, the circumstance of a candidate of Mr. Kennedy’s stature challenging an incumbent president is inherently quite unusual.

One way in which Mr. Kennedy’s late start may have harmed him was by allowing Mr. Carter a significant head-start in fund-raising, which Mr. Kennedy was never able to overcome. Another is through the impossibly high expectations that his long-anticipated and long-delayed entry into the race created in the press. Finally, Mr. Kennedy had overestimated the ease with which he might pick up union support on short notice, with a significant number of labor groups endorsing Mr. Carter.

And yet, if not for the Iranian hostage crisis, Mr. Kennedy may well have won. The news in Iran initially caused Mr. Carter’s approval rating among Democratic voters to rally to as high as 67 percent from a low of 40 percent, before falling back to about 50 percent by March 1980 — but after the New Hampshire and Iowa contests had taken place.

George McGovern, Democrat, 1984

Anticipation and announcement: The anticipation was limited for Mr. McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee who had lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon. Having begun to hint at a run in July 1983, Mr. McGovern announced his campaign on Sept. 11, 1983, receiving a largely skeptical and sometimes overtly sarcastic response from the press.

Polling: Mr. McGovern had been included in only one poll before his announcement, getting 6 percent of the vote in a Gallup survey in March 1983. Polls after his announcement had him in the high single digits.

Results: Mr. McGovern finished third in Iowa with 10 percent of the caucus vote but faded thereafter, winning just four delegates in total.

Verdict: Mr. McGovern’s campaign was extremely unlikely to be viable regardless of the timing of his entry into the race, so it is hard to make the case that his late start made any appreciable difference.

Jesse Jackson, Democrat, 1984

Anticipation and announcement: Mr. Jackson, the longtime leader of the civil rights group Operation PUSH, began testing the waters for a presidential run in March 1983 but dallied on a decision. He did not make his intentions clear until Oct. 31, 1983, when he broke the news to “60 Minutes” and to a Baptist congregation in Atlanta.

Polling: Mr. Jackson was included about half the time in polls conducted before his announcement, usually placing in the high single digits. In the first two national surveys conducted after he declared his candidacy, Mr. Jackson polled at 11 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

Results: The 1984 Democratic nomination contest was much closer than is generally remembered today, with the outcome still uncertain beyond the final primary in North Dakota, although Walter Mondale secured enough superdelegate support to ensure his nomination before the convention in San Francisco. Most of that was due to the rise of Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, who won 22 states to Mr. Mondale’s 26. The remaining two states, Louisiana and South Carolina, were won by Mr. Jackson, who also carried the District of Columbia.

Mr. Jackson’s campaign gained steam after poor initial showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he won just 2 percent and 5 percent of the vote. He finished with a respectable 18 percent of the popular vote in all primaries and caucuses that year, but won only 8 percent of the delegates as his campaign performed poorly in caucus states.

Verdict: In some ways this was a successful campaign, significantly improving Mr. Jackson’s standing as a national politician and setting him up for another run in 1988. One can argue that he was a bit fortunate, however, as the campaign might have wrapped up early if not for Mr. Hart’s surprising win in New Hampshire, which came as Mr. Jackson’s campaign was still trying to build momentum.

The small number of delegates Mr. Jackson received relative to his popular vote could plausibly have been caused in part by his late start, as caucus states tend to require more meticulous planning and are relatively expensive to compete in. Another plausible explanation, however, is that the caucus states gave him problems because they tended have smaller numbers of African-American voters.

Pat Robertson, Republican, 1988

Anticipation and announcement: The 1988 Republican campaign got off to a fairly early start as candidates recognized the difficulty of knocking off the front-runner, George H.W. Bush, the vice president to the popular Ronald Reagan. But Mr. Robertson’s entry came later; he announced his campaign in Brooklyn on Oct. 1, 1987. The news was not an enormous surprise, as Mr. Robertson had hinted at a run as early as 1985.

Polling: Mr. Robertson was included in most but not all polls of Republican voters in early and mid-1987, getting an average of 5 percent of the vote. His official entry into the race did not affect his numbers much, as his support averaged 7 percent in three polls conducted in October 1987.

Results: Mr. Robertson finished a strong and surprising second in the Iowa caucuses, behind Bob Dole but ahead of Mr. Bush. Having raised more than $16 million in 1987 despite his late start, he seemed equipped for a longer campaign, but a poor finish in New Hampshire relegated him to the second tier (although he notched wins in three caucus states).

Verdict: It’s not clear that Mr. Robertson’s late announcement affected his prospects much. He was a nationally recognized figure with a built-in constituency among the Religious right. He raised money easily and had been planning for the race for some time. A relatively strong finish in Iowa and the other caucus states, which are dominated by evangelical voters and activists, but a poor one in more moderate states like New Hampshire, is about what you’d expect for a candidate with this profile.

Jesse Jackson, Democrat, 1988

Anticipation and announcement: A second run for Mr. Jackson was widely anticipated throughout 1987, as he was included in all but one poll of Democratic voters. But he again took his time before entering, announcing that he would run on Sept. 7, 1987.

Polling: Mr. Jackson averaged 16 percent in national polls prior to his announcement, often putting him in first place after the front-runner Gary Hart suspended his campaign on May 8, 1987, after the disclosure of an extramarital affair. Mr. Jackson received a modest boost in the polls after he officially entered the race, averaging 21 percent of the vote in four polls conducted in September and October, 1987.

Results: Mr. Jackson won nine states and the District of Columbia along with 29 percent of the popular vote, placing him second in both categories behind the nominee, Michael Dukakis. Unlike in 1984, his delegate share — also 29 percent — matched his popular vote share.

It is less clear how close Mr. Jackson came to actually winning the nomination. As in 1984, he performed poorly in New Hampshire and in Iowa. During the peak of his campaign in March 1988, the conventional wisdom generally held that he had a plausible shot at winning a plurality of delegates, setting off a potentially fractious brokered convention, but almost no chance of winning an outright majority.

Verdict: One tangible way in which Mr. Jackson’s late start may have harmed him is in his fund-raising. By the end of 1987, Mr. Jackson had brought in only $2 million, putting him in last place among the eight viable Democratic candidates. In addition, Mr. Jackson did not compete in Iowa at all and took just 8 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, although both states may have been difficult for him under any circumstance because of their high percentage of white voters.

Steve Forbes, Republican, 1996

Anticipation and announcement: Mr. Forbes had begun to send out trial balloons about a potential run in the spring of 1995 and became more interested after Newt Gingrich declined to run. Most observers did not pay much attention to the chatter, however, and Mr. Forbes was not included in any polls of Republican primary until his announcement on Sept. 22, 1995.

Polling: Mr. Forbes polled at about 4 percent to 6 percent after announcing his campaign and his numbers remained in that range for the rest of 1995.

Results: Mr. Forbes placed fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Given the relatively low expectations for his campaign, the results were not fatal for him, and he won the next two primaries in Delaware and Arizona. The wins received little attention, however, particularly as Mr. Forbes was the only candidate to campaign heavily in Delaware. He dropped out of the race a few weeks later as establishment support begun to consolidate around the eventual nominee, Bob Dole.

Verdict: Mr. Forbes’s campaign, which later inspired various “Saturday Night Live” parodies, was generally viewed as something of a gimmick for his focus on the flat tax. Relative to expectations and early polling, his performance at the ballot booth was not bad. But he was a notoriously stiff campaigner and, despite owning a multibillion-dollar publishing empire, he did a poor job of controlling the media narrative. If Mr. Forbes’s objective was to make a serious run at the presidency, an earlier start wouldn’t have hurt.

Orrin G. Hatch, Republican, 2000

Anticipation and announcement: The Utah senator was a surprise entry into a strong and crowded Republican field, announcing his campaign on “Larry King Live” on July 1, 1999. There had been sporadic reports in Utah newspapers earlier in 1999 about Mr. Hatch considering a bid, but they received little attention in the national news media and Mr. Hatch was rarely included in national polls prior to declaring his candidacy.

Polling: Mr. Hatch generally registered at 1 or 2 percent in national surveys following his announcement, at no point doing better than 3 percent.

Results: Mr. Hatch, a relatively moderate Republican, would probably have hoped to perform better in New Hampshire than in Iowa. But his performance in Iowa was sufficiently poor — last place with 1 percent of the caucus vote — that he ended his campaign several days prior to New Hampshire.

Verdict: George W. Bush was an extremely strong candidate, having built a prodigious lead in polling and in fund-raising well in advance of the the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire. It is unlikely that any candidate could have beaten him without Mr. Bush making some major mistakes. The one who came closest was Senator John McCain, to whom Mr. Hatch’s voting record and “maverick” reputation bore some surface resemblance. One could make a thin case that Mr. Hatch might have followed something like Mr. McCain’s path had he entered the race earlier — but in all probability his campaign would have gone nowhere fast no matter what.

Wesley Clark, Democrat, 2004

Anticipation and announcement: Mr. Clark, the former general and supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, was the target of a “draft” movement that began in April 2003 following hints by Mr. Clark in February that he might consider a presidential bid. One of the first instances of online organizing to make a tangible impact on a presidential race, the movement focused around the notion that Mr. Clark — a Southerner with impeccable military credentials but also a liberal on many policy issues — could defy some of the stereotypes of a liberal candidate and would have significant cross-over appeal. Mr. Clark took his time in deciding whether to run, announcing his candidacy in Little Rock on Sept. 17, 2003.

Polling: Mr. Clark, who had only modest support in polls of rank-and-file Democrats until his announcement was imminent, surged in the days following it, as he averaged 15 percent in polls in the month thereafter. In several of these polls, he held the lead, slightly ahead of John Kerry, Joseph I. Lieberman, Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt, all of whom had about 10 percent support.

Mr. Clark’s polling support eroded some after the surge of Mr. Dean, who also used the Internet as an organizing tool and who appealed to some of the same voters. Mr. Clark’s national support averaged about 10 percent heading into the first primaries and caucuses.

Results: Mr. Clark did not campaign at all in Iowa and received almost no support there, instead focusing on New Hampshire. But John Kerry’s surprising win in Iowa, when he surged past Mr. Dean in the closing days of the campaign, propelled him to another win in New Hampshire, with Mr. Clark finishing well back with 12 percent of the vote. Mr. Clark retained some pockets of support among Southerners as well as among Democratic activists, some of whom were fleeing Mr. Dean’s flailing campaign. But he notched just one win, in Oklahoma on Super Tuesday, and finished with just 3 percent of the popular vote nationally.

Verdict: Mr. Clark’s fund-raising was decent — he raised $14 million in 2003 — but otherwise this campaign had all of the hallmarks of being impaired by his late entry. His reluctance to compete in Iowa, a state that requires significant advance planning, may have been understandable, but it also opened the door for another Democrat to surge following a win there, as Mr. Kerry did.

In addition, Mr. Clark, who had never run for office before, may have been exactly the sort of candidate who would have benefited from gaining early experience on the campaign trail, something that his late start deprived him of.

Fred Thompson, Republican, 2008

Anticipation and announcement: Mr. Thompson was also the subject of a “draft,” although it tended to be facilitated more by Republican elites, who were concerned that leading candidates like Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain were not sufficiently conservative. After months of anticipation, during much of which Mr. Thompson’s entry in the race was considered all but inevitable, he officially declared his interest by releasing a video on Sept. 5, 2007.

Polling: Mr. Thompson averaged 21 percent in polls in the month following his announcement, on several occasions polling within the margin of error of the lead held by Mr. Giuliani. This did not represent a huge bounce for Mr. Thompson, who was polling at about 18 percent in the month or two prior to his announcement. Mr. Thompson’s position began to fade by the end of the year, as he was down to 11 percent support in polls conducted in December, 2003.

Results: Like other candidates who entered the race late, Mr. Thompson had trouble gaining traction in the early voting states. He finished third in Iowa with 13 percent of the vote, and sixth in New Hampshire with just 1 percent, where he had tried to downplay expectations. Mr. Thompson tried to regroup in South Carolina but finished third there and ended his campaign shortly thereafter.

Verdict: Mr. Thompson, like Mr. Clark, had respectable fund-raising numbers ($22 million in 2007), but otherwise was beset by problems that can be linked to his late start. He was a lackluster debater and a lackluster retail politician, and his inexperienced media team had trouble shooting down the types of stories that may barely attract notice if handled effectively, but which can metastasize if they aren’t.

In addition, perhaps flattered by the wooing he had received prior to declaring his entry, Mr. Thompson decided that he could eschew some of the formalities of traditional campaign, instead relying on a viral media strategy and a “kitchen cabinet” team of advisers.

The other symptom of his relatively late entry was Mr. Thompson’s lack of a viable electoral path. Despite spending a significant amount of time in Iowa in late 2007, his lack of retail skills doomed him there, and his backup plan consisted of making a stand in South Carolina, something which looks good on paper but which is problematic in practice since one or more candidates will usually have gained significant momentum from Iowa and New Hampshire.

Mr. Thompson’s candidacy had significant enough flaws that it seems unlikely he would have survived to win the nomination under any circumstances, but his late start and lack of experience made his task much harder.

Ironically, although he had been sought out as a more conservative alternative to candidates like Mr. McCain, Mr. Thompson may have helped Mr. McCain to win the nomination by splitting the conservative vote in South Carolina and allowing Mr. McCain to win there with just 33 percent of the vote.

None of these candidates won their nominations. Nor did they come especially close with the possible exception of Mr. Kennedy — and close does not count for all that much in a two-candidate race.

At the same time, we are looking at a sample of only nine candidates, at best half of whom might have had a realistic path to their nominations even under the best of circumstances.

Still, the fact that the most viable among them — Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Clark and Mr. Thompson — performed so badly, especially in the early voting states, may tell us something. We’ll apply a more quantitative lens to these candidates in the second (and final) part of the series.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.