This Month in N.H. Primary History: The Hazard of Using Polls to Anoint 'Frontrunners'

Jul 1, 2015

July 1, 1995 – In the race for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole holds a 39-point lead over Sen. Phil Gramm in an average of national polls.

One of the unfortunate habits of political reporting in the past four decades or so has been the habit of RWSKB (“Reporters Who Should Know Better”) who cite national polls months and months in advance of the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and pretend they are significant.  The leaders of these usually meaningless surveys are quickly called “frontrunners” – a term freely used even though most voters aren’t paying attention and the primaries are a ways off. 

Nearly every article about the growing 2016 Republican presidential field – a field that as of Tuesday with Chris Christie has reached 14 – refers to national polling figures.  Who’s up, who’s down, who’s showing life, who’s left for the scrap heap.  Now, in fairness, polls have new relevance this cycle, because a candidate needs to be in the Top Ten in an average of five national polls in order to qualify for the early debates (starting Aug. 6 in Cleveland, sponsored by Fox News).

But, as Bob Dole learned some 20 years ago, national polls mean very little when the real deal are the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.  Back in 1995, Texas Sen. Gramm was considered Dole’s top rival for the nomination, having broken most of the fundraising records.  But his narrow defeat in a seemingly meaningless caucus in Louisiana in February of ’96 (which he was expected to win) was the beginning of the end of his campaign; he was out of the race before the New Hampshire primary.

And remember Bob Dole and his 39-point “insurmountable” lead in July of ’95?  That did him little good by the time it came to New Hampshire, which he LOST to Pat Buchanan.

We’ll never argue that polling numbers are irrelevant.  As a candidate, you’d rather be in first place than not.  But it does show that polling numbers seven or eight months ahead of New Hampshire aren’t worth that much.  For one thing, people often aren’t paying attention that much in advance of the primaries.  And those who are are living in Concord, not Connecticut  … Nashua, not Nashville. 

That’s something to remember if you’re Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton or Scott Walker or one of those “frontrunners.”

Just ask President Bob Dole in 1996.

Ken Rudin blogs at krpoliticaljunkie.com.