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What Do Springtime Polls Tell Us About the General Election?

Since Rick Santorum suspended his presidential campaign, essentially ending the Republican primary contest, the starting positions for the general election have taken shape. About 10 national polls have been released: President Obama leads Mitt Romney 47.7 percent to 43.7 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average of recent surveys.

Already, partisans and pundits are criticizing individual polling samples and pollster methodologies. Entire “-gates” – Rosen-gate and dog-gate, for example – have erupted, been fought over and then forgotten in mere days, and each poll is scrutinized to see how the latest controversy has affected the race.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds. But, of course, the election is still more than six months away, and in the past 10 presidential campaigns, the national polling leader in late April has won the election only half of the time.

Drawn from FiveThirtyEight’s polling database, which includes thousands of surveys, here is the average of the 10 most recent national polls as of late April in each election year going back to 1972 (for the 1980 election and before, fewer than 10 general election polls conducted in the first four months of the year were available).

The leader in national polls at the end of April in the past two elections has gone on to win. Before 2004, however, the April leader lost the popular vote more often than not.

The two biggest misses came in 1980 and 1992, both years that featured legitimate third-party candidates. President Jimmy Carter was narrowly leading a three-way race in 1980, with the independent John Anderson garnering nearly 21 percent of the vote (Mr. Carter actually led Ronald Reagan by 15 percentage points when polls tested a head-to-head match-up).

Of course, the race shifted quickly. By June 30, The Times’s William Safire wrote:

In the federal bureaucracy, the sense of the inevitability of Reagan permeates the attitude of “Schedule C” appointees; 2,000 plum-holders in the middle reaches of the Carter administration are busily preparing résumés.

Mr. Carter would lose to Mr. Reagan by almost 10 percentage points, and Mr. Anderson would win just 7 percent of the vote.

In late April 1992, Bill Clinton was statistically tied with the independent Ross Perot, and both were trailing President George Bush. Mr. Clinton would go on to outperform his April polling in November by 16 percentage points.

The list goes on: In late April 1976, President Gerald R. Ford was more than five percentage points ahead of Mr. Carter. Mr. Ford would lose by 2 points. Michael Dukakis was ahead of George Bush in April 1988, and Mr. Bush’s son, George W., was ahead of Al Gore in April 2000. The elder Bush went on to win the election outright, while George W. lost the popular vote but won the presidency after a protracted court fight.

The polls were not necessarily “wrong” in these cases. They may have been an accurate measure of each race at that time. But the quality of campaigns and candidates can sway allegiances, and real-world events often intervene.

On April 24, 1980, the United States launched Operation Eagle Claw, a covert mission to rescue the American hostages being held in Iran. The mission would end in disaster, deeply wounding Mr. Carter’s re-election effort.

In 1992, the elder Mr. Bush saw the sky-high approval ratings he enjoyed in early 1991 tumble into the 30s as the economy stalled. In 2004, President George W. Bush eked out re-election, helped, many believe, by an Osama bin Laden video message released days before the vote.

In the 2012 election, the daily push-and-pull between the Obama and Romney campaigns, as well as intermittent swings in the horse-race polling, will often be the focus on political blogs and television. But general election polls have a stronger tendency to revert to the mean, and the fruits of a well-executed campaign strategy or the lasting implications of a news event are likely to take time to truly manifest themselves.

The winner of each day’s news cycle might seem important in the moment, but there are still 195 days, and news cycles, remaining till Nov. 6. And since 1972, winning in April has been no guarantee of winning in November.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.


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