From “Presidential Politics and Predictions: Be Ready to Be Wrong” by Democratic strategist Mike Lux, author of “The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be“:
… If you look at the history of presidential politics in the modern era, the last half-century-plus, the strongly favored frontrunner almost never cruises easily to victory. Big stuff, little stuff, insurgencies popping up out of nowhere, scandals, stumbles — frontrunners, even the dominant ones, have lost a lot more often than they won, and generally even when they have won, they had a hell of a tough road getting there. In fact, in only two of the past 11 Democratic presidential primaries where there wasn’t an unchallenged incumbent president has the clear frontrunner at this moment in the four-year cycle gone on to win the nomination, and in one of those two situations (Mondale), he had a far tougher fight than expected.
In 1960, LBJ was the clear frontrunner, the dominant figure in national Democratic politics. He had by far the most important endorsements, and the strong support of the party establishment in most of the states. Hubert Humphrey was widely thought of as the only guy with a decent shot of beating him. Jack Kennedy was a lightly regarded upstart, with his youth and Catholicism considered obstacles way too big to overcome.
In 1968, LBJ — this time as the incumbent president — was of course going to win the nomination hands down. He completely dominated the party machinery, had limitless campaign money stashed away, was further ahead in the polls than Hillary. Gene McCarthy’s campaign was considered worse than a joke, it was assumed to be a short-lived token protest movement. My first political memory, as a 7-year-old just getting interested in politics, was seeing that LBJ speech where he stunned the world by announcing he would not run again, and I will never forget the looks of shock on my parents’ faces.
In 1972, Ed Muskie was the overwhelming frontrunner — way ahead in the polls, the money, the endorsements, everything. A silly media frenzy over whether he cried, and a hippie volunteer army for McGovern in New Hampshire, were all it took to quickly dislodge him from the race.
In 1976, Teddy Kennedy was the frontrunner in the polls but did not run. There were several Senate heavyweights who were thought to be top tier candidates, all of them faltered. Absolutely no one predicted Jimmy Carter.
The 1980 race was the only serious primary against an incumbent in modern presidential election history, and oddly, Teddy Kennedy actually started with a huge lead in the polls, as Carter was pretty unpopular with the Democratic base. But after Kennedy’s disastrous 60 Minutes interview, everything reversed and Kennedy never recovered.
In 1984, Mondale was the overwhelming favorite, as far ahead as Hillary in the polls and with every major group and most politicians’ endorsements. He didn’t make any big mistakes, ran a strong early campaign, and easily won Iowa as predicted, beating Gary Hart 50-17. But Democratic primary voters were restless, bored with Mondale’s safe establishment-mandated coronation, and looking for someone new. When Hart came out of the pack of candidates with a surprising second place finish, he trounced Mondale in NH and was on a roll, winning most of the next several primaries. Without some stumbles, Hart would have been the nominee.
Speaking of stumbles, Hart’s big one on his friend’s boat, the Monkey Business, with Donna Rice forced him to withdraw in 1988 after being the overwhelming favorite in the early polling. Gephardt, who had been working Iowa for years, became the favorite after that, but last minute entry Dukakis raised a lot more money than anyone else, and Gephardt split the populist vote with Simon, Gore, and Jesse Jackson. Gephardt won Iowa, Dukakis finished a pretty anemic 3rd there, but the late-entry candidate who had been at 1% in the polls ended up easily winning the nomination in the end.
In 1992, Cuomo was the strong favorite in the polling and among pundits right up until the time he decided not to run (quite late in the cycle, he was still debating with himself in the fall of ’91). After that, Clinton was one of the favorites until he stumbled, after which everyone pronounced his campaign over, after which he came back and won the nomination. (And after he won the nomination, up until the Democratic convention no one thought he had a shot of beating Bush.)
In 1996, no one challenged President Clinton for the nomination after he decisively beat the Republicans in the budget showdown. In 2000, there was the only primary fight in this entire saga that went pretty much as predicted, with Vice President Gore keeping his early lead and turning back a challenge from Bill Bradley, although a lot of us who closely followed the race think that if Bradley hadn’t spent too many resources contesting the Iowa contest where he was never going to win, that he would have beaten Gore in NH (he only lost 51-47). In that scenario, Bradley might well have made that race a hell of a fight.
In 2004, Hillary Clinton was way ahead in the early polling but did not run, and there was no real favorite. In the early days of the race, it was thought that Gephardt would win Iowa and Kerry would win NH, but then both faded and Dean came on from nowhere (literally 0 or 1% in the early polling, with no one predicting he had a chance) to a big lead in the polls, money, and endorsements. When Dean made some late mistakes, and Kerry and Edwards put together a late surge, the race was reshaped again.
Finally in 2008, people have already forgotten how inevitable Hillary was seen then. At this time of the cycle then, July of 2006, it looked unlikely that Obama would even run. And throughout 2007, she had a wide lead in the polls and endorsements.
That’s the track record, folks: 11 contested primaries over the last 54 years, only one of them turned out pretty much as expected, and only two where the pre-season favorite even won…
Looking at the record of front-runner fade-outs, you could make a pretty good argument that it’s not such a good thing for Hillary Clinton that so many think she has a lock on 2016. Early coronations also invite lots of potshots and negative attention.
Measure that, however, against the considerable advantages of having lots of time to unify the party, rack up the contributions and recruit GOTV muscle. But Lux is surely right that betting on any candidate months before the campaign begins is unwise.