The following was written by Al Hunt, retired American journalist who writes now and then.
Maybe the polls and conventional wisdom are right: Joe Biden and Donald Trump will slug it out next year in a very tight race. But with 17 months yet to go, in more instances than not, the dynamics of presidential races change markedly.
I sat down with Peter Hart, who for 50 years was America’s premier Democratic pollster. For three decades he — and first, the equally respected Republican Bob Teeter, and then Public Opinion Strategies — conducted the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, considered the gold standard. We examined eight of these surveys, from 1991 to 2019, all 17 months out from the presidential election.
Yes, there were a few that followed form; more didn’t.
If the static analysis of 17 months earlier had held, we might have had Presidents Joe Lieberman, Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump never would have gotten near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Seventeen months out, we look at the micro but fail to see the macro,” says Hart, who was a little taken aback by a few of the results of the surveys he had conducted. “Elections are about candidates and conditions — and they often change.”
In 1991, the first Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in this series, the only trial heat was between Republican President George H.W. Bush and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, the presumed Democratic nominee. Bill Clinton didn’t even announce his candidacy until October. (That probably would be too late now, but Labor Day might not be.)
Four years later, President Clinton had a 46% approval rating and was running even with Republican Bob Dole. But within a few months, the new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, became the face of the GOP, to the president’s advantage.
“Gingrich was a key element in the 1996 election,” Hart says. “Clinton had a foil.” He beat Dole by more than 8 points.
It’s notable that the two other Democratic incumbents in the surveys had higher approval ratings at this stage than Biden’s 42%: Obama was at 49%. Moreover, in both 1996 and 2012, the economy was on the upswing; it may not be next year.
With Trump and Biden, name recognition isn’t an issue. If one of them drops out for any reason, it might initially advantage Vice President Kamala Harris or former Vice President Mike Pence. Hart reminds that in July 2003, Joe Lieberman, the previous vice-presidential nominee, led the Democratic field. Five years later, he no longer was a Democrat. Similarly for Republicans, in June 2007 Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson were the frontrunners; neither made it beyond January.
One who did make it past January but fell from his peak before the election — barely — was George W. Bush. Seventeen months out from the 2000 election, Bush was lapping everyone, running 15 points ahead of Al Gore. In the actual election, Gore won the popular vote but narrowly lost the electoral college.
“The Bush name gave him cred in June 1999,” Hart notes, “but that only lasts so long.”
Eight years later, it was the other way around: In June of 2007, Obama was running well behind Hillary Clinton. As he became better known, that changed.
Of all the results we examined, the one that Hart still funds “stunning” was in June 2015. Republicans were asked whether they could see voting for a list of more than a dozen candidates. Most fared well, but two-thirds of Republicans at that stage said they could not vote for Donald Trump.
This, Hart recalls, was a case not just of massive media attention for Trump in ensuing months — but conditions changed, turning it into a polarizing and bitter election, playing to Trump’s strengths.
Changing conditions hurt both Presidents Bush in the final 17 months. By 1992, the success of the first Gulf War faded — as did Bush 41’s standing. In 2004, the Iraq war was starting to look like the debacle it became — and the president’s once-huge lead over John Kerry dwindled.
In 2019, of course, no political prognosticator or poll was even aware of something called Coronavirus.
Over the next 17 months, it’s not a reach to envision significant change: a candidate’s health, more indictments, new revelations or scandals, a terrorist incident, a dramatic change in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
In channeling his inner Donald Rumsfeld, Hart says you can’t calculate something you don’t know. But it appears to him — at this stage — that voters, or those that decide elections, are looking for more regular order and focus on the future rather than current or past battles.
That, he senses, doesn’t augur well for either front runner: “Trump conveys division and hate,” Hart says, and at 82, “Biden can’t be about tomorrow.”
The following people have indicated or been commonly named as someone thinking about or planning to run for president in 2024. This list is a result of the mining of a variety of lists published in the last few months.
For the Republican nomination: The following have announced their candidacies or are expected to announce their candidacies.
Donald Trump – Former President of the United States
Ron DeSantis – Governor of Florida
Nikki Haley – Former governor of South Carolina
Vivek Ramaswamy – Entrepreneur and author
Asa Hutchinson – Former Governor of Arkansas
Tim Scott – U.S. Senator from South Carolina
Chris Christie – Former Governor of New Jersey
Mike Pence – Former Vice President
Larry Elder – Conservative talk show host
Francis Suarez – Mayor of Miami
Doug Burgum – Governor of North Dakota
Will Hurd – Former member of Congress/CIA
Republicans who have said they are not running in 2024:
Rick Scott – U.S. Senator
Josh Hawley – U.S. Senator
Tom Cotton – U.S. Senator
Larry Hogan – former Governor of Maryland
Mike Pompeo – Former Secretary of State
Chris Sununu – Governor of New Hampshire
Trump has a strong lead among potential rivals.
Ron DeSantis 21.5%
Mike Pence 5.7%
Nikki Haley 3.6%
Tim Scott 3.5%
Asa Hutchison 0.8%
For the Democratic nomination:
Joe Biden – 64%
Michael Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. – 14.4%
Marianne Williamson – 5.7%
[RealClear Politics 6/26/23]