Barack Obama became a star with his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, which gave him a base of support heading into 2008.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Last week, I wrote that Ron DeSantis is no Scott Walker, in no small part because Mr. DeSantis already has impressive strength in the polls.
But it’s fair to wonder whether we should really care about that at this early stage. After all, there’s still nearly a year until the primary season begins in earnest.
Believe it or not, we probably should. Even at this early stage, the polls are often surprisingly indicative of the eventual result of presidential primaries.
The leader in polls conducted in the first quarter of the year before the primaries has won the nomination more often than not in the modern primary era, dating to the 1970s. Even when front-runners lose, they usually succumb to another candidate with significant support in the early polls.
Put it together, and there’s a decent relationship between the early polling and the outcome of the presidential primaries — a relationship that bodes well for Mr. DeSantis. (Higher-quality surveys havetended to show less support for Donald Trump.)
Of course, that relationship is nowhere near perfect. But consider just how long it is until the start of the primary season. At this point, most candidates haven’t even announced their candidacies. No one has set foot on the debate stage. And yet poll results already presage the eventual outcome with uncanny regularity.
If you take the value of the early polls seriously, there’s an equally surprising implication for the way to think about presidential primaries: The campaign is already halfway over, even though it doesn’t seem as if it’s even begun.
The coming speeches, debates and advertisements matter about as much as what’s already in the rearview mirror.
The notion that the campaign is already at halftime is a little mind bending, but if you reimagine a presidential campaign as everything a candidate will do to amass the support needed to win, it starts to make a little more sense. Most winning presidential primary campaigns are built on support won long before the actual campaigning gets underway.
Take a recent and clear case: Joe Biden in 2020. When did he build the support he needed to win the nomination? Did he win Black votes in South Carolina with soaring speeches on the campaign trail? Did he win it in the debates? Did he win with television advertising? Did he build his relationship with James Clyburn, the former Democratic majority whip and South Carolina kingmaker, in one night of dinner and drinks in February 2020? Of course not.
Mr. Biden built his support long before the campaign began, when he was Barack Obama’s loyal vice president for eight years. Without the good will he amassed before the campaign, he most likely would have started and ended with minuscule support in the polls — just like in his prior two presidential campaigns.
The idea that Mr. Biden’s support was mainly built before he entered the race probably isn’t too surprising. What’s more revealing is that this early support often seems to be enough to win a presidential nomination.
In the modern era, only two candidates — George Wallace in 1976 and Gary Hart in 1988 — entered the primaries with more than 20 percent support and then saw the nomination go to a candidate who started with less than 20 percent support. Neither example offers a great precedent for the typical long-shot candidate: Mr. Hart left the race amid allegations of marital infidelity; Mr. Wallace built his career as a segregationist and was opposed by huge swaths of the Democratic Party.
Of course, plenty of long-shot candidates have risen from obscurity to become serious contenders against strong competition. Mr. Hart may have lost to Walter Mondale in 1984, but he came close enough to represent an unequivocally strong precedent for long-shot contenders, even in defeat.
In more recent years, the rise of the internet and cable news has helped allow more than a dozen candidates with initially limited support to reach 20 percent in national polls, including Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Newt Gingrich, Howard Dean, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Mike Huckabee, Wesley Clark, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney (in 2008) and Ben Carson. A handful of these candidates ultimately put up a strong fight, but only Mr. Trump won the nomination.
Why does early support seem to indicate so much about a candidate’s prospects? The easiest interpretation is that candidates with early support in the polls have a lot of advantages over the other candidates in pursuit of the nomination.
Part of that advantage may be simply that these tend to be pretty good candidates. They might not only be stronger in quality than the typical late-breaking candidate, but their support may be more durable. After all, it’s not easy to attract mass support for a presidential bid well ahead of the nominating contest, when neither the news media nor voters are paying much attention.
To reach 20 percent before the campaign season, Mr. Obama had to give one of the more notable political speeches of the last half-century; to reach 20 percent during the campaign season, Mr. Perry didn’t have to do much except receive several weeks of press coverage that would have never been devoted to his candidacy a year earlier.
Virtually all of the early polling leaders were well-established national political figures. They might not have been soaring orators, but they had other strengths. They had already been vetted. They had already earned the trust and confidence of many voters. They had vast networks of elite support, yielding solid fund-raising, experienced staff and high-profile endorsements.
They often possessed something more than mere name recognition: a deeper kind of familiarity that makes them the “default” option for voters who don’t fall in love with another candidate — a description that fits John McCain in 2008 and Mr. Biden in 2020. These well-known candidates often have little to prove.
Another reason for the success of the early front-runners is that early strength itself bestows important advantages, regardless of candidate quality. Their strength can be sufficient to deter strong rivals. They lock up donors and staffers who might have otherwise gone to the competition. They’re all but guaranteed the steady news media coverage that lesser known candidates are desperate to attract for themselves. As a result, they can coast thorough debate performances that would be woefully insufficient for candidates hoping to rise out of obscurity.