The biggest question of the Democratic primary is whether Joe Biden is on a march to the nomination or whether he will be taken down by one of his many competitors.
And while we of course don’t yet know the answer to that, looking back at recent history can give us a sense of the range of likely possibilities.
In the modern primary era — beginning in 1972, the first contest after major reforms to how presidential nominees are picked — there have been 16 nomination contests without an incumbent president in the race.
Broadly, these contests have followed two main paths. In nine of them, there’s a long-standing frontrunner who ends up winning, which is what Biden wants to happen. But the other seven are more complicated — either the contest started without a clear frontrunner or there’s a frontrunner who ultimately loses.
But there’s a lot of variation within these categories. Some frontrunners have had a relatively easy time of winning. There are also frontrunners who eke out difficult, prolonged victories. There’s usually at least some drama — for instance, there’s only one non-president in these 38 years who secured the nomination by winning every single primary and caucus (Vice President Al Gore, in 2000).
Of the frontrunners who lose, some totally fall on their faces, like Rudy Giuliani in 2008, while there’s other precedent for a strong contest that just ends in defeat, like Hillary Clinton that same year. As for victorious challengers, there are some who are in the hunt all along (as in Obama’s challenge to Clinton), and others who seem to come out of nowhere once the early states begin voting (like Jimmy Carter).
So, practically any candidate can find some historical example that’s encouraging for their chances. But here’s an overview of the full picture.
Path #1: The frontrunner wins
Open presidential nomination contests have often featured someone viewed as being the “next in line.” This could be a current or former vice president, or the runner-up of the previous nomination contest, or, in one case, a recent president’s firstborn son.
All of these candidates were generally acknowledged by the political world as their party’s frontrunners from the very start of their respective campaigns. They all led in polls from the start. Eventually, they all won the nomination.
And indeed, most frontrunners who have led polls for as long and as consistently as Biden have ended up winning — which is surely encouraging news for him.
But we shouldn’t necessarily view those triumphs as inevitable. There’s a good deal of variation in how these frontrunners performed — both in how strong their polling leads were all along and in how they performed once the voting actually started.
- The perfect primary: The only non-incumbent president to run the table was Vice President Al Gore in 2000 — he led polls all along and won all 57 primaries and caucuses, batting back a challenge from Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ).
- Surviving an early-state misstep: Another common path is that the frontrunner leads polls all along but has a surprising setback in an early state — but then ends up recovering. Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 both followed this trajectory (they won Iowa and lost New Hampshire), as did Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1988 (they both lost Iowa and won New Hampshire). These candidates may have been helped by their frontrunner status once multiple bigger states started voting and personalized campaigning became less important.
- Winning ugly: Finally, some frontrunners had a tougher go of it, but ended up triumphing in the end. Hillary Clinton in the 2016 cycle was the favorite all along, but Bernie Sanders remained in the race against her and picked up delegates through the end of voting. Walter Mondale in 1984 had an even tougher go of it — the former vice president was also the Democratic frontrunner the whole time, but he faced vigorous challenges from Sen. Gary Hart (D-CO) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, both of whom stayed in all the way to the convention. (Hart actually ended up winning more state contests overall than Mondale.)
Then there are another pair of contests which sort of fit the “frontrunner wins” mold but should be paired with asterisks, for different reasons.
- The once and future frontrunner: All of those previous frontrunners began their respective races leading polls and consistently retained those leads throughout the year. Mitt Romney in 2012 had a shakier performance, though. His poll lead was never all that strong, and in the latter half of 2011 he fell to second place behind a rotating series of challengers (first Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich). In the early states, too, Romney traded off victories with Santorum and Gingrich — but by late February and then March’s Super Tuesday, Romney had recovered and began winning consistently.
- Seizing the frontrunner mantle: Another common characteristic of frontrunners is that they are respected figures of their party’s establishment. So Donald Trump in 2016 was a quite different case from everyone mentioned above — he was an outsider with little elite support battling to take over the GOP. Trump didn’t start off as the frontrunner either, since he didn’t make a dent in polls in the first half of 2015. But, soon after he entered the race that June, he took the lead nationally, holding it for months and never relinquishing it. And though Trump lost the Iowa caucuses, he won the next three early states and most of the contests afterward.
Path #2: Somebody breaks out once the voting begins
Other nomination battles have had more surprising outcomes — some have featured frontrunners who were dethroned, and some seemed to never have a clear frontrunner at all. The winners of these races have followed a few different paths.
- Going from second to first: Though Hillary Clinton was viewed as the favorite to win the nomination, Barack Obama won in 2008. We should note that Obama started off in a decent position — he was the clear second-place contender all along. But for much of 2007, he made little progress and in fact made some regress — Clinton took her biggest lead in October of that year. In the week of the Iowa caucuses, he was 20 points behind Clinton in national polls, but his victory there shook up the race immediately. Clinton fired back by winning New Hampshire, but Obama proved he was no flash in the pan by winning South Carolina, and he passed Clinton in national polls after Super Tuesday.
- In the top four all along: Another set of eventual nominees were always in the mix in crowded fields but needed a big early state win to help set themselves apart from the pack. These included John Kerry in 2004, who had not been polling particularly well but surprisingly won Iowa and New Hampshire and then almost everything else.
Michael Dukakis in 1988 followed a rockier path. The Massachusetts governor was always in the mix in Democrats’ famously inchoate contest that cycle — he won New Hampshire and did well on Super Tuesday — but the race remained messy for another month afterward, until Dukakis won Wisconsin and New York.
There’s also John McCain in 2008, who began 2007 polling in second behind Rudy Giuliani but had a rough start to his campaign — he fell down to fourth place. Then, though, McCain’s surprising late surge in New Hampshire led to a victory there. That win, and Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney’s failure to win key early states, suddenly boosted McCain to first in national polls, and he followed it up with wins in South Carolina, in Florida, and on Super Tuesday.
- They came out of nowhere: Finally, Democrats have had a few nominees who emerged quite late, helped by unexpectedly strong early-state performances. George McGovern in 1972 was an outsider challenger, and in January 1972 he was still in fifth place. But the South Dakota senator understood the new Democratic primary rules (which he had helped write), and his supporters were well-organized and committed. So when he came in a surprisingly close second to frontrunner Ed Muskie in New Hampshire, he followed that up with wins in other key states, and batted back a challenge from previous Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey.
Then, in the next cycle, Jimmy Carter in 1976 was a little-known governor of Georgia until he finished second in the Iowa caucuses (behind “uncommitted”). And Bill Clinton in 1992 was another little-known Southern governor, but he won a surprisingly strong second place in New Hampshire and became the clear frontrunner once he dominated on Super Tuesday.
What does all this mean for 2020?
One takeaway from all this is that it’s likely a mistake to count the frontrunner out too early. Usually, a consistent frontrunner has gained that position for a reason, and his or her support can prove more durable than their challengers’ (especially in big states when multiple primaries start happening at once).
So even if Biden does end up falling behind his rivals in the polls, there will be the potential for an outcome like Romney’s in 2012, where those rivals end up collapsing. (Biden, however, likely faces a stronger field of challengers than Romney did then.)
Another takeaway is that the frontrunner usually does stumble sometime. Again, Al Gore was the only non-incumbent president to win every single primary and caucus. Biden would surely love to repeat his example, but it’s probably more realistic to expect a tougher road going forward. So a key question will be whether he can rebound from an early setback if one does ensue.
Then, the group of more surprising outcomes should remind us that, yes, frontrunners can fall, that surprising winners can emerge, and that it remains quite early in the 2020 Democratic contest. (All of those surprising winners, again, only broke out as the Iowa or New Hampshire results came in, or even later.)
Frontrunners like Rudy Giuliani and Ed Muskie led polls consistently the year before the election but fell flat on their faces when voting began. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid similarly ended in failure, though she had a competitive race. Those historical examples should be worrying for Biden — and promising for his rivals.
Finally, it’s always good to keep in mind that we could get an outcome that doesn’t match neatly to anything that’s happened before. The media has changed, how voters consume information has changed, and the party electorate has changed. For instance, before Trump in 2016, there had never been an outsider candidate who seized the frontrunner position from the establishment long before the voting began, and won. History can tell us about some interesting possibilities — but not all of them.