07/23/2007 11:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Flashback: The Polls in July 2003

The blogs and mainstream media have featured much speculation,
as they always do, on the trends in trial-heat vote questions on national and
early state surveys and what they may foretell about the likely outcome next Spring.
I thought a review of what these same surveys were saying four years ago about
the Democratic nomination contest might serve as a valuable reality check.


According to the Polling Report (my source
for all the data that follows), seven organizations released polls in July 2003
on the Democratic race. The "undecided" option generally led on most surveys, and
future nominee Sen. John Kerry received just 14% of the vote, typically slightly
behind or tied with Rep. Dick Gephardt or Sen. Joe Lieberman. Howard Dean, who
would emerge as a perceived "frontrunner" over the summer months was still
averaging just 11%. Moreover, as the chart of the Annenberg National Election Survey
data (described in more detail here several months ago) demonstrates vividly, Dean
remained mired in the teens nationally until December 2003, but then plunged
dramatically after his third place finish in Iowa.


Was it any different in the early states this time four
years ago? Dean, whose campaign had started running television advertising in Iowa and New
Hampshire in June, had increased his share of the
vote as compared to polls conducted in both states earlier in the year. Two
polls - one from the Des Moines Register and another internal poll later
released by Dick Gephardt's campaign - both showed Dean and Gephardt leading with
just over 20%. Meanwhile, John Kerry and John Edwards, the two candidates that
would ultimately emerge to finish first and second in the caucuses with a
combined 69% of the state delegates selected, receiving an average of 18% of
the vote in the surveys take in July 2003.


The New Hampshire
polls of July 2003 probably came closest to the ultimate result in that state,
although John Kerry's average in those polls (24%) fell far short of his
ultimate share of the vote (38%). Moreover, John Edwards and Wesley Clark who
each averaged just 2% in these early polls, ultimately received just over 12%
of the vote.


Of course, 2008 is stacking up as a very different year than
2004. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are arguably better known now than
any of the 2004 candidates were at this point four years ago. My point here is not to argue that 2008 will be like 2004, however, but to try to remind readers that there is still considerable room for change in the preferences voters express on these early surveys. We are just now coming to the close of the first phase of the campaign
in the early states, where (except for Bill Richardson and Mitt Romney) none of the candidates have yet run significant amounts of television
advertising. While the contest has started a bit earlier, we still have a long
way to go.