History Shows Kerry, Bush Need to Establish Advantage by Labor Day

Posted March 17, 2004 at 2:16pm

Forget all of the hand wringing over the “early” start to the 2004 presidential election. It’s later than you think. Much later.[IMGCAP(1)]

Recent historical trends suggest that President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) have from now until Labor Day — not Election Day — to make their cases before voters decide whom to support for president. A review of polling by Gallup over the past 40 years (sometimes in conjunction with CNN and USA Today) shows that in most cases the candidate leading after the presidential nominating conventions has their ticket punched for the White House.

Specifically, in 11 of the last 13 presidential elections, the major party nominee leading in the Gallup Poll conducted immediately after the second national convention went on to win the popular vote in November.

In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower (R) led Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson by 7 points after the Democratic convention. Four years later, Ike held a 9-point lead after his own party’s convention. He went on to win both contests, first by 10 points and then by 16 points.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, who came out of his party’s convention with a 36-point lead over challenger Barry Goldwater (R), coasted to an easy win in November.

Four years later, in 1968, Richard Nixon (R) led Hubert Humphrey (D) by 10 points, 51 percent to 41 percent, in a Gallup poll conducted Sept. 1-6, just days after the Aug. 26-29 Democratic convention. Nixon edged the Democratic nominee (though by less than 1 point) for the White House.

In his re-election bid in 1972, Nixon drew 64 percent in an Aug. 26-27 Gallup survey conducted a few days after the Aug. 21-23 GOP convention. He coasted to a second term with 61 percent.

Four years later, Democrat Jimmy Carter held a 50 percent to 37 percent lead over incumbent President Gerald Ford (R) in Gallup’s Aug. 20-23 poll, taken on the heels of the Aug. 16-19 Republican convention. The November election was a 2-point squeaker, but Carter did prevail.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan held a solid 15-point lead over challenger Walter Mondale (D) in a Gallup Poll conducted Sept. 7-9, two weeks after the Aug. 20-23 Republican convention. Reagan’s actual margin in November was 18 points.

Four years later, in 1988, an Aug. 19-21 Gallup poll conducted after the Aug. 15-18 GOP convention found Vice President George Bush holding a 48 percent to 44 percent lead over Michael Dukakis (D). Dukakis, who had maintained a solid lead for much of the summer, ended up losing the contest by 10 points.

Democrat Bill Clinton held a 10-point lead after the 1992 Republican convention and a 19-point lead after the 1996 Democratic convention. His victory margins were smaller than those poll numbers, but he won twice.

And finally, in 2000, an Aug. 18-19 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted immediately after the Aug. 14-17 Democratic convention found the Al Gore-Joe Lieberman Democratic ticket held a small (and statistically insignificant) 47 percent to 46 percent lead over the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney ticket.

Since Gore received more popular votes than Bush in 2000, the election confirmed the recent trend in post-convention polling.

Eerily, the first two CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls conducted right after the Democratic convention presaged the ultimate outcome in November. While that Aug. 18-19 poll found Gore-Lieberman up by one point, an Aug. 24-27 CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey had Bush-Cheney up by a single point, 46 percent to 45 percent. Taken together, the polls predicted a tie.

The two exceptions to the recent rule are the elections of 1960 and 1980.

In 1960, Vice President Nixon came out of the July 25-28 GOP convention with a narrow 6-point advantage over John F. Kennedy in a July 30-Aug. 4 Gallup survey. Mid-August Gallup polling, however, showed the presidential contest deadlocked at 47 percent, and it stayed virtually even right up until Election Day, when the Democrat drew 119,000 votes more than Nixon out of 68 million votes cast.

Technically, 1960 violated the trend, since Nixon held a lead after the Republican convention yet drew fewer votes. But the August tie is worth noting, particularly given that the popular vote in the race was closer than the 2000 presidential contest.

The trend was also broken two decades later, in 1980. President Carter held a statistically insignificant 39 percent to 38 percent lead over challenger Reagan in an Aug. 15-18 Gallup survey conducted immediately after the Democratic convention.

The race remained tight until late October, with Carter maintaining a narrow edge. But he never approached the crucial 50 percent mark, and at the end of October Reagan pulled ahead. In November, the Republican turned a tight race into a solid 10-point win.

The 1980 race differed from most of the other contests because voters that year didn’t decide until very late whether the challenger, Ronald Reagan, crossed the threshold of acceptability as commander in chief.

By the time of the conventions in 1964 and 1972, voters had decided that Goldwater and George McGovern were just too risky — too extreme — to be handed the presidency. But it was only in the final few days of the 1980 race that Americans decided that former actor Reagan was serious and trustworthy enough to be handed the keys to the Oval Office, and that explains the late movement in public opinion.

While it’s tempting to complain about the “early start” in this year’s race, Kerry and Bush would be foolish to take their feet off the gas pedal for a few months off before jump starting their general election efforts.

Democrats have been beating up on the president for months, and he needs to try to redefine both himself and Kerry in the eyes of voters. Kerry, on the other hand, wants to continue to drive the president’s negatives higher, painting him as a failure on jobs, health care and Iraq.

Moreover, both nominees saw what happened in 1996, when Clinton’s ads during the spring and summer put the GOP nominee in a deep hole from which Bob Dole could never extract himself.

With the 2004 election expected to be another extremely narrow affair, neither the president nor the Massachusetts Senator can take anything for granted. And that means buying into what Sidney Blumenthal once called “the permanent campaign.” Delaying the general election campaign would mean missing trips to Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and New Mexico, or forgoing TV ads in those places. And, in politics, an opportunity missed can be an opportunity lost.

I’m not saying that late events (ranging from a terrorist attack to a campaign or candidate blunder) can’t change an election’s outcome. And of course, if the 2004 race is as tight as many think, the final result could turn on relatively minor developments in the campaign’s final days.

But while it’s tempting to see Nov. 3 as a long way off, voters are making decisions every day about the candidates. That is why the day after the GOP convention ends, Sept. 3, 2004, is not the beginning of the general election, but the beginning of the end of the race for Bush and Kerry.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.