Q&A of the Day – How Often Initial Party Favorites Win Presidential Primaries
Each day I feature a listener question sent by one of these methods.
iHeartRadio: Use the Talkback feature – the microphone button on our station’s page in the iHeart app.
Today’s Entry: @brianmuddradio How often do candidates who start out as favorites win the nomination?
Bottom Line: This is an outstanding question as it serves in painting a picture in which conventional wisdom at the onset political processes often prove to be unwise. Who can forget that Donald Trump’s first Republican primary polling showed him in 10th place with only 1% support among Republican primary voters in 2015. That’s the first and most obvious example that initial leaders don’t always win. And who was the front-runner in the initial Republican primary polling in 2015? None other than Jeb Bush. The same Jeb Bush who finished 7th in the Republican nomination process with a total of 4 out of 2,388 delegates. The 2016 Republican Primary example shows just how much can happen during the primary process prior to actual votes being cast. For the purpose of this exercise, I’ll evaluate open primaries, those which don’t involve an incumbent president running for reelection.
Here’s a breakdown of the most recent open primary polling favorites regardless of party:
- 2020 Democrats: Joe Biden - Winner – Joe Biden
- 2016 Democrats: Hillary Clinton - Winner – Hillary Clinton
- 2016 Republicans: Jeb Bush - Winner – Donald Trump
- 2012 Republicans: Mitt Romney - Winner Mitt Romney
- 2008 Democrats: Hillary Clinton - Winner Barak Obama
- 2008 Republicans: Rudy Giuliani - Winner John McCain
- 2004 Democrats: Dick Gephardt - Winner John Kerry
- 2000 Democrats: Al Gore - Winner Al Gore
- 2000 Republicans: George W. Bush - Winner George W. Bush
That’s a total of nine primary processes playing out across both parties since the start of the current century. And the scorecard shows the record for the initial front-runner's winning the party’s nomination is 5-4. That’s instructive because it does generally show that starting out as the favorite has led to a candidate winning a party’s nomination more often than not. Breaking it down still further we see these trends within party partisans.
- Democrat favorites have a 3-2 record in winning the nomination
- Republican favorites have a 2-2 record in winning the nomination
Democrats have been the most likely to nominate the initial front-runner in the race, whereas it’s been a coin flip for Republican front-runners. This adds to the narrative that despite polls suggesting Trump is the clear front runner, this really is a two-horse race that’s likely to turn out to be much closer than the national polls currently suggest (with Trump averaging a 33-point lead). And there’s another wrinkle this time around. It’s the one I referenced in yesterday’s takeaways. As I mentioned... History is not on Trump’s side. Yes, Donald Trump is the odds on favorite to win the Republican nomination right now. No, history hasn’t been favorable to former presidents who attempt a comeback. Six former presidents preceding Donald Trump have attempted comebacks after leaving the presidency – Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover. Only one, Grover Cleveland in 1892, was successful. In fact, the other five not only didn’t win back the presidency, but they also didn’t win their party’s nomination either. If Trump is to become the next President of the United States, he’ll have to do what no other Republican has done before – twice. First by winning the party primary and then by winning the general.
Every election is inherently unique. That said the reason the saying “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (often cited as doomed to repeat these days), has stood the test of time is due to the human condition. Times change, issues change, in a political context the candidates change. What doesn’t though is human behavior generally. For primary voters historically the behavior has to been to move on from the past. That tendency is a challenge Trump will have to overcome, in addition to the challenge specifically represented by DeSantis, in order to win the nomination and secondarily the general election.