Today’s Poll Numbers In Context

I’ve been blasted by many readers for my pessimism about November’s election. I hope they turn out to be right, of course. One common theme voiced by conservative optimists is that polling data this far in advance of an election are meaningless. There is, of course, considerable truth to this claim. But a review of the historical data is not as encouraging as some conservatives seem to think.
Today, Gallup notes that in its most recent polling, John Kerry leads President Bush among likely voters by 53% to 46%. Gallup goes on to say: “A review of historical trial-heat data from past elections shows it is rare for an incumbent president to be trailing at this stage in a campaign.”
According to Gallup, there are seven elections for which comparable poll data are available: 1948, 1956, 1964, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1992 and 1996. Of those seven elections, there was only one instance where the incumbent trailed at this point in the election cycle: 1976, when Jimmy Carter led President Ford by two points, and went on to win by the same margin. In every other election–including 1980 and 1992, when the incumbent eventually lost–the incumbent was ahead as of January and February of the election year.
So I don’t think that the administration or its supporters should take the current poll data lightly.

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