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How Donald Trump’s poll lead compares to past frontrunners who ended up losing

Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Donald Trump has led national GOP primary polls for four and a half months. Since late June, he's led every single poll in New Hampshire and all but one in South Carolina. There have been hardly any polls of Nevada, but he's led the few that have been conducted there. And for most of this period, he's led in Iowa, too — Ben Carson jumped in front of him for a few weeks, but now Trump appears to have regained a small lead in the state.

That's all four of the first states to vote, if you're counting.

Trump's poll dominance has been so consistent for so long, across so many early states, that it's natural to wonder whether there's any precedent for a candidate with similarly strong numbers across the board to collapse.

The short answer is that there is. While no recent Republican loser has matched Trump's combination of leading nationally and in the two earliest states, two recent Democrats have. Howard Dean led national, Iowa, and New Hampshire polls as late as January 2004 before collapsing with astonishing speed. And Hillary Clinton led everywhere for most of the second half of 2007 — until a late Obama surge in the Iowa caucuses sent the two into a months-long, grinding duel for delegates that Clinton ended up losing.

I see no reason to simply assume that a similar fate awaits Trump — I've previously laid out my doubts that "the party" is guaranteed to stop him somehow — but there's also no reason to assume Trump's poll strength up till now precludes that outcome, either. As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight and David Byler of RealClearPolitics have argued, primary voters often decide quite late, and even many who previously seemed to be leaning one way can quickly change their minds.

So for context, let's take a look at the temporary poll leaders from other recent nomination contests — and at how Trump's situation might, and might not, differ from theirs.

The 2004 Democratic frontrunner: Howard Dean

Howard Dean's 2003-'04 presidential campaign has so many similarities to Trump's current effort that I'm surprised the two aren't compared more often.

  • Both seized on a hot-button issue on which many of their party's rank-and-file voters feel betrayed by their elites — immigration for Trump, the Iraq War for Dean.
  • Both got attention with angry political rhetoric — Dean was unafraid to trash President George W. Bush and the Democratic establishment, and his style was described as "shoot-from-the-lip."
  • Both drew unusually large crowds.
  • Both were perceived by party elites as loose cannons who could get blown out in the general election.

And up to this point, Dean's polling history looks a lot like Trump's too:

A chart of national primary polling for the Democrats in 2003-'04. It may seem as if John Kerry took the lead before the Iowa caucuses, but that's just because of smoothing techniques — he didn't lead nationally until after he won in Iowa.
Charles Franklin

Like Trump, Dean shot to the front of the pack in national primary polls, topping out at just under 25 percent (just a bit under Trump's current 30 percent). Like Trump, Dean had a solid lead in New Hampshire, and had a somewhat smaller and less certain lead in Iowa, where former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt seemed to be his biggest competition.

Yet just days before the Iowa caucuses, things dramatically shifted in the state. As pollster Ann Selzer later recounted, her tracking showed Kerry shoot up 5 percentage points and Dean lose 7 in just two days. In the end, Dean came in third behind not only John Kerry but also his fellow late bloomer John Edwards. Gephardt, meanwhile, fell to fourth.

After this shocking Iowa outcome, the race turned on a dime. Kerry immediately shot to the front of national primary polls, while Dean plummeted. Kerry soon won New Hampshire (Dean's longtime lead there vanished in a flash) and ended up winning 46 states in total. It was a massive, lightning-fast shift in voter preferences — both toward Kerry and away from Dean.

It's still not clear exactly why things changed so quickly. One commonly offered explanation for the shift in Iowa is that Dean and Gephardt had savaged each other with negative ads and paved the way for someone else to rise up. As for Dean's national collapse, the intense negative media coverage of his famous "scream" on caucus night (shown in the video above) certainly couldn't have helped things.

But it's also possible that concerns over Dean's electability suddenly took center stage when Democrats actually had to vote. The 2004 presidential election would be the first since 9/11, and Democrats were concerned that their party and eventual nominee would be tagged as "weak on terror." So it may well be that once Kerry won in Iowa, the vast majority of national Democratic voters — who had always had doubts about Dean — suddenly took Kerry seriously for the first time, and quickly decided this war hero was a much more electable-seeming alternative.

However, there are some potentially important differences between Dean and Trump's situations. Trump has been leading polls longer than Dean. He leads in South Carolina, where Dean never looked like he had a chance. And this year's GOP debates have gotten record ratings, suggesting that more voters could be forming perceptions of candidates early.

Most importantly, it doesn't follow that just because the Democratic electorate eventually stampeded toward the more electable option in 2004, the Republican electorate will in 2016. Though Republican elites have long been very concerned that hard-line immigration views could make their nominee unelectable, the party's actual voters have not seemed overly worried about this. And GOP Iowa caucus-goers showed scant concern about electability when they voted for Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012.

The 2008 Democratic frontrunner: Hillary Clinton

(Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty)

Hillary Clinton's 2007-'08 candidacy differs from Trump's current bid in nearly every particular, but one thing they have in common is that they were leading polls practically everywhere for months on end — except in Iowa, where each occasionally fell behind other candidates.

According to the RealClearPolitics average, Clinton trailed John Edwards in Iowa for several months in the beginning of 2007. In August, she surpassed him to take first place — but in December (a month before the caucuses), she fell behind Barack Obama and ended up losing Iowa and eventually the nomination to him.

The lesson of Clinton's loss, like Dean's, is that a defeat in an early state can transform the larger nomination contest. Trump has looked like a winner for so long now that a plurality of Republicans say they now expect him to win the nomination. But if somebody else wins either Iowa or New Hampshire, that could change very quickly.

The 2008 GOP national frontrunner: Rudy Giuliani

(Mark Hirsch/WireImage/Getty)

It's difficult to remember now, but former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani actually spent all of 2007 as the leader of national GOP primary polls, according to the RealClearPolitics average. Fatally, though, he was weak in every early state — he never led in New Hampshire, and he fell behind Mitt Romney in Iowa in the spring of 2007. When he unsurprisingly lost in both, he became an afterthought, and his support elsewhere cratered.

Giuliani resembles Trump in the level of support he topped out at in national polls — 30 percent or so. This is, of course, far from a majority of the GOP electorate (though it is tough to do all that much better in a multi-candidate field). His major difference is he never amassed the early state leads that Trump had. More broadly, Trump's fellow New Yorker ran a completely different campaign — Giuliani tried to cultivate GOP elites and wasn't anything close to a populist.

The 2008 GOP early state frontrunner: Mitt Romney

(Stephanie Himango/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty)

In the 2008 contest, Mike Huckabee ended up winning Iowa, and John McCain won New Hampshire. Yet for most of 2007, it was actually Mitt Romney who led both states — and as late as November, it looked like he was the favorite to win both, which could well have made him the GOP nominee.

Then it all fell apart for Romney, and quite quickly. According to RealClearPolitics' averages, Huckabee surged past him in Iowa in early December 2007 — a month before the caucuses. Then McCain only passed him in New Hampshire a week before the New Hampshire primary.

Since Romney never led nationally during this campaign, his experience may seem to have little relevance to Trump's. Yet it does show that in these early states, it is quite possible for candidates who have been discounted by the press to surge late. And, interestingly, Romney's support level didn't actually decline much in either state — rather, enough undecided voters and supporters of various other candidates suddenly swung behind Huckabee and McCain to give each a plurality victory.

The 2012 GOP frontrunner crew (Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum)

(Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty)

In late 2011 and early 2012, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum each had a brief stint at the top of national polls lasting less than two months. A similar lineup traded the lead in Iowa in the year before the caucuses. The rapid rise and steep fall of each of these insurgent, establishment-loathed contenders — and the eventual triumph of elite favorite Mitt Romney — primed traditional journalists, pundits, and number crunchers alike to expect Trump's candidacy would follow a similar path.

Yet Trump's polling support has differed from theirs in two major ways. First, it's been a lot more durable — by now, Trump has spent as much time at the top of national polls as all of those 2011-'12 contenders put together. He's survived one controversy after another that was supposed to bring him down.

Second, none of these challengers led New Hampshire in even a single poll tracked by RealClearPolitics. Mitt Romney maintained a large and consistent lead in the Granite State all along. This year, though, Trump has led every New Hampshire poll since late June. And that means establishment contenders like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio won't necessarily be able to rely on the Granite State for an early victory, as the Upshot's Nate Cohn wrote last week.