The results of the 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential elections are all well-known: Obama beat McCain in 2008, got re-elected after beating Romney in 2012, and Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the polls 553 days before each of those elections painted an entirely different story.
As of April 30, 2019, there are 553 more days until ballots are cast in the presidential election on November 3, 2020. The first primaries and caucuses are still roughly nine months away. Essentially, polls at this stage of a presidential election are a reflection of a candidate’s media coverage.
In mid-April, for example, South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg surged from the bottom of the pack to third place following several weeks of favorable coverage. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) was the frontrunner in some polls following a week of electric media coverage, much of it from a Fox News town hall in which he won over the crowd. And polls released Tuesday show former Vice President Joe Biden in a comfortable lead in polls following a strong opening week of media coverage, 24 points ahead of Sanders in one poll.
In January, the Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote about the rapidly shifting tides of presidential polls, pointing out that elections panned out entirely differently than expected according to polls conducted in the spring of the year prior to an election year. 553 days before the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton was leading Barack Obama by nine points, and she maintained a polling lead for nine more months. On the Republican side, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani led the Republican field by 12 points, and continued leading for more than eight months.
While President Obama didn’t have any primary competition in 2012, Republican primary polling had Mitt Romney in the lead by nearly eight points, though he would go on to lose that lead less than four months later to then-Texas Governor Rick Perry. However, Perry famously flamed out in a presidential debate in which he said “oops” when he couldn’t remember the name of a government agency he wanted to abolish (it was the Department of Energy, which he now leads).
And of course, polling 553 days before November 8, 2016 had Clinton leading Sanders by 56 points, even though the primary ended up being much closer. And former Florida Governor Jeb Bush led the crowded 2016 Republican primary field by 1.2 points, though he went on to lose that lead to Donald Trump a little more than two months later.
The first of roughly a dozen Democratic presidential debates is scheduled for late June. There will be more debates each month through April of 2020. Given recent history, it’s likely polling numbers will very greatly after the first few debates.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.