12/24/2006 09:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pres 08: The Democratic Primary Race

(Click the image for a full resolution view, and click here for an 11 x 17 version in .pdf in case you still need a last minute gift. Goes great with the Republican plot here for the bipartisan in your family.)

The Democratic race for the presidential nomination has seen some small but interesting dynamics, though there is much yet to come. (I posted on the Republican race here last week.) As with the GOP post, I've include every Democrat who has been included in any poll's list of candidates. (Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) who declared his candidacy Dec. 12 has yet to appear in a poll and hence is omitted from the figure. He'll of course be added as soon as poll results exist. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel also declared his candidacy on April 17, 2006 but has yet to appear in any polls. See the handy list at here.) All polls included here are of "Democrats" or "Democratic primary voters" (which may include some independents.

The lede here (already somewhat buried-- Sorry Ray, I know you taught me better!) has to be that Illinois Senator Barack Obama does not yet have the nomination sewed up, despite what breathless prose and unimaginative yet endlessly repetitive use of "rock star" in stories might have you believe. ("Obama" and "rock star" appear in the same paragraph of 122 stories since September 1 according to LexisNexis.) If we actually pay some attention to the data, we get a more reasonable assessment of the Senator's support.

The surge in support for Sen. Obama is quite real since October 22 when he suggested he might consider a presidential bid. Prior to that the three polls that had asked about him as a possible candidate had all registered support well below 10%. In the 11 polls that have included his name since October 22, Obama has been supported by between 11% and 23% of Democrats polled, averaging 17% support. (The trend line in the figure is a poor indicator of recent trends with so few polls, so the overall average of 17 is probably the best current estimate of his support.) That is impressive for a first term Senator, and the reports of enthusiasm (not to mention a Newsweek cover that suggests the race is down to Obama vs. Sen. Hilary Clinton) are a fine way to launch a campaign. But any sensible reading of these data show that while Sen. Obama has enjoyed a brief flurry of attention and a surge in support, he is far from catching up to the actual front runner, based on the polls, Sen. Clinton, whose most recent polls are over twice as high.

This is to disparage poor reporting rather than Sen. Obama's chances. But those chances deserve a serious and longer term look rather than the hype we have seen. Now that the initial flurry of media excitement is passing, the question is whether the trend in Obama support can establish an upward trajectory. So far we simply don't know because his polling history is far too short for any confident estimates.

Sen. Clinton has easily led the field so far, as any poll reader would know. But there is a bit of a dynamic in her support that has been less remarked upon. While holding at or above 40% throughout 2005 (with one mid-year and two late year exceptions), Sen. Clinton has seen some non-trivial erosion of support through 2006, falling from 40% to 33% support (based on the trend estimate), though rebounding to almost 36% at year's end. That hardly constitutes a collapse, but does suggest that the lead is not immovable. It is also clear that this decline came before "Obama-mania" took hold in late fall. So while Sen. Clinton continues to be the clear "front runner" in the polls, her hold on Democratic support is not entirely solid. Those not satisfied with her as a choice are liable to jump to a seemingly viable alternative, a well known phenomena in presidential primary polling. Sen. Obama's rise in support may provide an example. But the year long decline in support shows that Sen. Clinton must work to secure the nomination, rather than take front runner status for granted.

By contrast, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who lost to President Bush in 2004, has seen support for a second nomination fall steadily throughout 2005 and 2006. While short term memories may focus on Sen. Kerry's lack of verbal facility late in the 2006 campaign, this decline in support has not been the result of a single slip of the tongue. From 20% at the start of 2005, Sen. Kerry fell steadily to 14% by the beginning of 2006 and to about 7% at the end of 2006. While the Senator appears to continue to plan for a second run, the steady fall in support, capped by late fall pre-election mistakes but by no means due solely to those slips, suggests that in fact few Democrats support a second nomination and that his early support has been due primarily to strong name recognition, especially in 2005.

Another previous nominee has seen an opposite trend. Al Gore, the nominee in 2000 who has been quite reluctant to mount a new campaign, has risen in support from under 5% to around 17% in 2006, though he has fallen to about 12% as of December 2006. For such a reluctant candidate, Gore continues to do well as memories of the supposed shortcomings of his 2000 campaign fade from memory now refreshed with an outstanding powerpoint presentation translated to the big screen. Come to think of it, Ross Perot's 1992 graphs helped him too. Maybe powerpoint is the campaign technique of the future.

The other 2004 nominee, for Vice-President, former Sen. John Edwards has maintained relatively significant support of from 10-15 points, though he too has declined a bit from 15% to 10%. More than enough to remain visible, but not yet a surge. His recent strong performance in Iowa polling suggests he may have more support where it counts, but again it is a long way to the caucus.

Other widely mentioned candidates have remained well below 10% in the polls. Some having dropped out already (Bayh, Feingold and Warner) while others soldier on (Biden, Clark, Dodd, Vilsack). And New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson continues to be mentioned though without a visible campaign.

So what has to be said remains that while candidacies may seem "inevitable" and others "doomed" by these numbers, the race is in fact far more winnable (and "losable") than polls 13 months or more out suggest. Remember that as late as early December 2003 Howard Dean was widely said to have the nomination sewed up and to be considering Vice-Presidential candidates.

Cross-posted at Political Arithmetik.