At this stage of presidential politics, with months to go before the first meaningful ballots are cast, everyone loves the horse race: Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s up? Who’s down?
Right now, the who’s in/out appears to be settled for the 2012 GOP contest. Who’s up is definitely Rick Perry: The Texas governor has soared to a 5-point lead over Mitt Romney in the Real Clear Politics polling average as of today, including double-digit leads in all but one major national poll taken since he officially became a candidate.
But does any of it matter?
A lot of people — particularly those who support trailing candidates — point to the 2008 GOP primary as reason to discount current polling for the 2012 contest. After all, on this date in 2007, everyone just knew that Rudy Giuliani was going to be the Republican nominee (matched up against Hillary Clinton, of course). In fact, here’s how the RCP polling average stacked up on Aug. 30, 2007:
Giuliani –27.9 percent
Fred Thompson — 16.9
Mitt Romney — 14.1
John McCain — 11.1
Mike Huckabee — 3.4
Other/Don’t Know — 26.6
The top two candidates by the end of the primaries were of course McCain and Huckabee. Giuliani led in the polls for another 129 days, until it became clear his strategy of waiting for the Florida primary was a disaster. It might seem incredible in hindsight, given that everyone thinks he was a quick flame-out, but Thompson actually ran second into early December. And then he was eclipsed not by McCain, with whom he ran closely for a couple of weeks longer, but Huckabee — whose support doubled between Dec. 1 and the middle of that month.
As New York Times blogger Nate Silver pointed out earlier this year, however, 2008 was an anomaly. In every other election since 1972 in which there was no Republican incumbent — plus 1976, when Gerald Ford faced a strong challenge from Ronald Reagan — the GOP’s eventual nominee was leading in the polls nearly a year and a half before Election Day. (The Democrats are a different matter.)
In most years since then (Silver picked 1972 because it marked the beginning of the modern primary system), the eventual GOP nominee had a solid lead. From 1992 through 2000, the most recent open contests prior to 2008, it wasn’t even close.
But if there’s a primary that compares to this one better than 2008, I think it’s 1980.
In the first half of 1979, Reagan held a relatively narrow lead over Ford, who didn’t publicly rule out running for the nomination until several states had already held their primaries. Then there were a couple of other holdovers from 1976, Howard Baker and John Connally, running a respectable third and fourth. (Interestingly, Reagan’s eventual closest challenger and running mate, George H.W. Bush, was running well back in the pack at that point.)
And then, as now, the contest became a matter of the yahoo, super-conservative former big-state governor derided as dangerous and possibly dumb (Reagan and now Perry) versus the establishment’s pick (Bush and now Romney).
Things were of course different then: There had never been a Reagan in the White House, although Barry Goldwater had laid the foundation for his run during his unsuccessful run against incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. On the other hand, plenty of people have compared Barack Obama’s first term to that of Jimmy Carter — who, like Obama, had come to office in large part as a rebuke to the GOP after eight turbulent years.
So, the question comes down to whether Perry, like Reagan, will manage to convince voters that he’s a serious enough candidate and challenger to the incumbent president — or whether, like McCain, Romney will prove that the “safer” pick who’s waited his turn will get the nomination.
And the answer is:
Well, you know what they say about past performance not being indicative of future results.
– By Kyle Wingfield