Sunday, November 11, 2007

4th place in the polls prior to the Iowa caucus is little cause for concern

gurufrisbee, apparently, has been beating a drum that no one has heard. His objection to Bill Richardson isn't that Bill Richardson holds bad positions on the Iraq War, health care, rising college tuitions, the environment or foreign policy. His objection with my advocating Bill Richardson is that I "still haven't EVER addressed how Richardson goes from being a distant fourth place Democrat to winning the nomination." While, I remain convinced that is a lame reason to not support a candidate, I plan to show in a very systematic way that a 4th place poll position going into the Iowa caucus is not a nail in the coffin to any campaign.

In the history of the modern nomination process (1972 - present) with Iowa as the first caucus, there have been 9 presidential elections. 3 had an incumbent (1980, 1996, 2000), so I'm going to focus on the 6 that did not.

In 1972, Edmund Muskie was the perceived front runner going into Iowa. He won the caucuses, but Senator George McGovern came from no where to place 2nd. McGovern placed in New Hampshire, but eventually went on to win the nomination. He was defeated by Nixon in the general election.

In 1976, there were a record number of candidates for the Democratic Party nomination. Many of them well known senators, but Jimmy Carter came from below 4th place (about 4% nationally) in the Iowa polls to finish 2nd to "uncommitted". His momentum led him to a victory in New Hampshire and ultimately the White House.

In 1984, the Democrats were searching for someone to knock off President Reagan. Party favorite, Walter Mondale, won Iowa with 49% of the vote and went on to win the nomination, but lost the general election after promising to raise taxes during a national televised debate.

In 1988, Richard Gephardt was the party favorite and finished first in Iowa with a 31% vote. Gary Hart and Illinois Senator, Paul Simon, were also considered "top tier" candidates. On election day, eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis, won 22% of the vote and took 3rd place. Dukakis won New Hampshire and eventually the nomination. But lost to George H.W. Bush in the general election.

In 1992, there was no favorite front runner, but Tom Harkin, Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas and Senator Bob Kerrey considered the "top tier" candidates. Tom Harkin, being from Iowa, won Iowa big with 76% of the vote. Tsongas came in 2nd with 4% and Clinton, third, with 3%. Tsongas won New Hampshire, but Clinton came in 2nd and used that momentum to win several key primaries to secure the nomination. Prior to the Iowa caucuses, Clinton was in single digits due to his numerous sex scandal allegations.

In 2004, Howard Dean was the clear front runner according to the polls. He was followed closely by Richard Gephardt and Wesley Clark. As we are well aware, negative campaigning between Gephardt and Dean soured caucus voters (among other reasons) and they threw their support behind John Kerry and John Edwards (4th and 5th in the pre-caucus polls, respectively). Kerry went on to win every state, but Oklahoma, and lose to George W. Bush in the general.

Of the 6 non-incumbent elections, only once did the "front runner" go on to win the nomination. In 4 of the 6, a surprise finish by a candidate was enough to propel them into becoming the eventual nominee. While the sample size is small, polls and "front runner" status prior to the Iowa caucuses are poor indicators of who will eventually be the nominee.

So why all these "upsets"? Chris Cilizza over at The Fix has some insight with his post from last week, Why It's So Hard to Poll Iowa. Basically, the caucus system is crazy. Pollsters never know who will turn out, where they will turn out and who their 2nd choice is. The third being the most important because of the nature of a caucus system.

This post is long enough, but I will follow with a post on how, specifically, Bill Richardson goes from 9% in Iowa 55 days out, to being the Democratic nominee and next President of the United States.