Now that the New Year is upon us and the Iowa Caucus is only two days away, I thought it would be a good time to examine the volatility and danger that polls can present to candidates. The attached chart shows the maximum percentage of likelihood that each candidate would be the 2012 Republican nominee. These data come from the futures market site Intrade.com, and track each candidate from Jan 1, 2011 to Dec 31, 2011. These numbers show the maximum percentage that each candidate received each month. It should be noted that December can be deceiving for Newt Gingrich. Gingrich spiked for about two weeks before collapsing back to normal levels. During this spike, Romney also experienced an equal drop in likelihood of being the nominee.
Did Tim Pawlenty drop out too soon?
Throughout the early months of 2011, the two largest contenders in the race appeared to be Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney. However, the general mood of the Republican Party appeared to indicate that neither candidate was what Republicans really wanted. Perry did not officially announce his candidacy until the Ames Straw Poll on August 31, 2011, but talk of his running had already started to generate buzz. Pawlenty spent over $1 million dollars to get a strong place in what is ultimately a meaningless poll, came in third place, and subsequently dropped out of the race.
While hindsight is always 20/20, a look back over the past year of data shows that Pawlenty most likely dropped out too soon. At the time, the Rick Perry Campaign seemed to be like a sleeping giant just starting to wake up. Perry had just been successfully re-elected in Texas, was starting to get his campaign machine going in Iowa, and had not had a single debate. Then Rick Perry went to a few debates, opened his mouth, and shocked a lot of Republicans and Democrats everywhere with his performance.
Was it Rick Perry's race to lose?
While Tim Pawlenty may have dropped out too soon and could have taken advantage of Rich Perry's falling stardom, the numbers appear to show that this was Rick Perry's race to lose. Rick Perry was at his height in August just after
he announced his candidacy.
His numbers would reach slightly higher in September, but Romney also began a steep climb during that month, too. The key factor here was Rick Perry's own abyssmal debate performance. When you begin to add the Republican debates to the above graph, a clear trend begins to form as Perry sinks his own ship with his mouth and lack of preparation. Despite whatever people might say about Romney, the debates clearly showed that Romney had spent the last four years learning from his mistakes and preparing. While Rick Perry's “shoot from the hip” style made him look totally unprepared for prime time. Ironically, Rick Perry's debate performance only made Bill White' defeat to the man in 2012 more embarrassing.
Once Rick Perry's star began to fall, Republicans were left with few real options for a Romney-alternative. This is shown in the surges that Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all felt. Michele Bachmann's biggest spike was mid-July without any surge since then, despite coming in first place in the Ames Staw Poll (1% higher than Ron Paul). Did I mention it was a meaningless poll? On a national level, none of these candidate have been given a serious chance of winning the nomination, although one might at least win Iowa.
The Fallacy of Polls
While the above narrative of the Republican Primary through 2011 is interesting, it shows the volatility and danger of polls can present to candidates. Throughout the year, national polls have shown some candidates barely beating President Obama, or President Obama barely squeeking by. However, in each case, the polls are only a snapshot of the here and now while the real election was still over a year away. The Rick Perry campaign juggernaught that many analysts seemed to predict fell on its own sword, but may not be completely dead just yet. In September 2007, John McCain's campaign was pronounced Dead On Arrival, and most analysts believed the 2008 election would be between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani while Barack Obama's efforts help might get himself a slot for Vice President or a cabinet position. People also tend to forget that President Clinton also lost both Iowa and New Hampshire in the 1992 Democratic Primary. In 2003, Governor Howard Dean was considered the front runner for the 2004 Democratic Primary until John Kerry won both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Polls have their place in every election, but must always be taken with an understanding of the circumstances surrounding the current environment the polls exists in. A poll in July 2011 about who will win in November 2012 is hardly worth the paper its printed on. However, a poll in September 2012 on who will win in November 2012 should at least be taken very seriously. History has shown that Mitt Romney or any other candidate always has a possibility of being one major gaffe or scandal away from being yesterday's news. Democrats throughout both Texas and nationally thankfully don't have to worry about who our nominee will be for the Presidency in 2012. Rather than worry about who the Republicans will or will not nominate, we should sit back and enjoy the show while also organizing and preparing for the eventual fight that will start sooner than most of us think.
Working with the Data
If you are interested in seeing more of the collected data or playing with a few of the numbers, please feel free to down the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that I put together to create the above charts. The data comes directly from Intrade.com's website, and covers the period between January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2011.
You can also find this article and data on my website below.