Ranking Primary Favorites of the 21st Century

As teased on Tuesday, I don’t think Joe Biden’s front-runner status is as strong as his polling numbers suggest. Though I’ve considered him the front-runner ever since the 2018 midterms (and indeed since Hillary Clinton’s general election loss), I’ve been surprised at how quickly pundits and oddsmakers, many of whom had him trailing Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders for most of the winter, have so readily followed Biden’s booming polls.

To be fair, those polls are pretty convincing. Here are the rolling Real Clear Politics national polling averages across all of 2019:


Though Biden’s post-announcement pop has since partially faded, he still holds a much larger lead than he had at any point before he jumped in. He’s leading national polls by, on average, 18 points. It’s a consistent lead, too; of the ten polls taken over the last three weeks, he leads between 18 and 20 points nine times. This is therefore not a case of a pollster coughing up bad samples. On the contrary, they’re all singing in concert: Biden is not only the favorite, he’s doubling the support of his nearest competitor.

But this lead is by no means insurmountable. To illustrate, today I’ll rank him among the primary front-runners of the 21st century. (Sorry, math nerds, but I’m going to include 2000 as the 21st century.) To align ourselves to the current scenario, I’ve deemed the earliest reasonable “front-runner” as someone who leads the polls not only before the voting part of the primary began, but also before debates gave voters a chance to know the entire field. Therefore, I researched polls from the first half of the calendar year before the primary contests, and I found that the following candidates were the initial polling “favorites.” (I’ve linked you to polling numbers from the year before the primaries.)

Crucially, I’m going to rank their potency as of about a year before the primary contests. That means I will NOT factor in hindsight and the ultimate result. (This approach explains why a non-nominee will beat out an actual nominee!)

Let’s do it.

1. Three-way tie between Bush 2004, Obama 2012, and Trump 2020

Sorry, #NeverTrumpers (and Bill Weld). Unless the President decides he doesn’t want to serve another four years, Donald Trump is the 2020 Republican nominee.

4. George W. Bush 2000

In the 2000 Republican Primary, it was George W. Bush — the son of the last Republican president and governor of the second largest state in the country — against a bunch of smaller names. Many of us remember John McCain’s far-too-late charge to make the nomination process almost competitive with a New Hampshire Primary win, but in the early part of 1999, Bush dominated the field in fundraising and had support from about half of Republican voters while a bunch of others divvied the rest. (For example, McCain only polled in the mid-single digits.) The truest challenger at the time was actually Elizabeth Dole, a two-time cabinet member and wife of the previous Republican nominee, Bob Dole. Though she sometimes reached around 20 percent support, Dole never assembled a formidable campaign, and poor fundraising convinced her to withdraw months before Iowa. It was Bush’s nomination.

5. Al Gore 2000

Though Bush’s eventual general election opponent, Vice President Al Gore, also had support from about half the party, he only had one official challenger — New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. By April, 1999, they were the only two getting polled by Gallup, and Bradley had support from about a third of respondents with more than a tenth of respondents still undecided — a troubling sign for known commodity Gore. Bradley had comparable fundraising to Gore, whereas the Bush Campaign’s treasury was considerably more impressive than that of the divided field’s. Though the Vice President was still a prohibitive favorite — indeed, he would go on to sweep the 2000 Democratic Primary — having only one major opponent around which all anti-establishment voters could consolidate was more dangerous than Bush towering over seven dwarfs. This lesson would be re-taught 16 years later…

6. Hillary Clinton 2016

Late in 2015, I wrote about the Sanders-Bradley comparison. Just like Bradley seemed to have the potential for a mega-upset, that potential was more perception than reality. I felt the same about Bernie Sanders’s run at Hillary Clinton and never wavered. Though Sanders won many contests and bested Bradley’s performance by miles, Clinton’s heir-apparency was as strong as Vice President Gore’s, especially a year before the contests.

7. Hillary Clinton 2008

Kicking off the second half of this list is our highest ranking favorite that did not end up winning the party’s nomination. A year before Iowa and New Hampshire, Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton had consistent double-digit leads in all major national polls. However, these leads weren’t as large as the spreads enjoyed by everyone ranked above. Illinois Senator Barack Obama found himself 15 to 20 points behind, and John Edwards ran a close third nationally and even led some Iowa polls while he appealed to the Bill Clinton/Jimmy Carter “We need a southern white man for Democrats to win” demographic. Still, she was certainly the favorite and had establishment support. Obama’s eventual victory is the century’s greatest political upset that doesn’t involve Donald Trump.

8. Mitt Romney 2012

Though Romney went on to win the Republican nomination, I don’t think we can say that, one year before the primary contests, he was as big a favorite as Clinton had been four years earlier. He usually led the polls, but he was regularly between 20 and 25 percent support — hardly overwhelming. He did, however, benefit from by far the best fundraising of any candidate, and he was considered “next in line” by the establishment back when that was still more of an advantage than a weakness. Still, a feisty field below him took turns surging at and sometimes eclipsing him throughout 2011. Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich each took turns, but each was beat back by the eventual nominee.

9. Joe Biden 2020

Biden ranks at just 9 out of 12. That’s below Clinton 2008, a losing candidacy, and Romney 2012, a candidacy that frequently lost the national polling lead. More on Biden’s low rank once we’re done with the context.

10. Rudy Giuliani 2008

Can you believe Rudy Giuliani was once a favorite to be a presidential nominee? It’s outrageous. At the time, however, he was coming off his stint as “America’s mayor,” a run that included cleaning up New York’s streets and leading the city’s resilience after the 9/11 attacks. He was also seen by some as a strong general election candidate that had views moderate enough to win over his liberal city and therefore the nation at large. In early 2007, he had around 30 percent support in Republican opinion polls.

And yet, John McCain, who had come in second in the last open Republican Primary (see Bush 2000), was running a strong second, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney led Iowa and New Hampshire for much of 2007. Giuliani’s pro-choice background also loomed as a potential nomination-blocker for the pro-life party. Giuliani was a small favorite, but he was by no means a likely nominee.

11. Jeb Bush/Scott Walker 2016
12. Hillary Clinton/Joe Lieberman 2004

The very fact that each of these pairs shared polling-favorite status betrays that status. Bush and Walker get the edge here because it was clear they were actually going to run. They each led national polls in the early parts of 2015, but usually with numbers in the teens. Clinton (a Senator and wife of the last, popular Democratic president) and Lieberman (the 2000 vice presidential nominee) led polls mostly from name recognition. Neither seriously tested the presidential waters, and neither ran for the nomination.

In both cases, the lack of clear favorite contributed to a large, wide-open field. In 2003, when it became clear Clinton and Lieberman weren’t running, Howard Dean and Dick Gephart each had their turn as favorite, but by 2004 John Kerry and John Edwards rose to the top. In 2015, Dr. Ben Carson had a run at the top of the polls, and this blogger thought Marco Rubio was the favorite by the fall.

You won’t believe who actually ended up winning.

For several reasons, Biden 2020 feels perfectly slotted between Romney 2012 (#8) and Guiliani 2008 (#10).

  1. The top six are the unassailable top six. They were gigantic favorites. If you had to bet on one of those candidates or their field of opponents, you’d have been crazy to take the field. Meanwhile, the bottom two are unassailably the bottom two, as there was no clear favorite. It’s only the 7 through 10 slots that get a bit tough to rank.
  2. The 7 and 8 slots should go to Clinton 2008 and Romney 2012. As someone who has a clear memory of following those primary seasons, those two felt like clear favorites. In either primary, an ambitious bettor could be forgiven for taking the field against the favorite if the odds were attractive enough, but chances were a bit better than a coin flip that the favorite would win — and, true to form, one of them won and one of them lost.
  3. Unlike those two candidacies, Biden’s chances feel worse than a coin flip. PPFA’s latest odds on his nomination are 9/2 — the favorite, but marginally. The real oddsmakers have him between 2/1 and 3/1. They, like I, feel that it’s more likely he’s not the nominee than he is. The same could be said of Rudy Giuliani in 2008.

Considering the above, the two most likely fates of the Biden Campaign will resemble either Romney 2012 or Giuliani 2008. There are remarkable similarities across the three candidates, starting with these nominal favorites contending with many opponents — a sign that no strong favorite was there to scare away the field. Further, Romney and Giuliani both faced charges of being too moderate for the party’s ideological wing, and both had to prove themselves to these detractors. Biden will have that same challenge.

Similarly, Romney and Giuliani were seen as more realistic general election opponents than far-right, ideological dissenters like Rick Santorum (2012) and Mike Huckabee (2008). Biden also claims general election viability over the likes of lefties Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Biden 2020 outranks Giuliani 2008 because A) Biden’s polling lead is so much stronger than Giuliani’s ever was, and B) The 2008 Republican Party, coming off two Republican terms in the White House, wasn’t desperate. The 2020 Democrats are desperately desperate and continue to value general election strength over everything else. (I can’t even remember all the times I’ve heard some version of, “I just want someone who will win!”) Biden continues to poll the best in general elections hypotheticals, which can turn into a self-fulfilling argument — much to the frustration of the left.

However, I give the edge to Romney 2012 over Biden 2020 because none of Romney’s challengers seemed like a real… challenge. Only the high upside of Rick Perry loomed as a potential derailer for Romney, but Perry wasn’t in the race until late in the summer and then he flamed out after embarrassing debate performances. Sure, there were other flavors of the month like Cain, Gingrich, and Santorum, but their flaws were larger than Romney’s, and not one was remotely near their political prime.

Unlike Romney, Biden will have to contend with much stronger opponents, many of them cresting at their highest potential in this moment. Bernie Sanders, for example, is extremely well-funded by a record number of small donors — in contrast to Biden. Elizabeth Warren is renowned for a detailed, policy-driven, progressive campaign — in contrast to Biden. Pete Buttigieg has the gift of being perfect in front of a microphone — very much in contrast to Biden. Beto O’Rourke, as someone who proved he could win over Democrats, independents, and even Texas Republicans, eats into Biden’s electability case. Kamala Harris, meanwhile, looks and sounds like the perfect ambassador for the modern Democratic Party, quite unlike Biden, a relic from the twentieth century.

Importantly, in both 2008 and 2012, the favorite’s polling lead evaporated. The remarkable similarities between Biden’s campaign and those other two should lead us to think that Biden’s lead will also crumble. Romney had the infrastructure, temperament, and air of inevitability to help him weather the storms. It remains to be seen if Biden does. If I were a betting man, I’d say he does not.


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