Sabato's Crystal Ball

Lessons From History: Don’t Be Too Quick to Pull Down the Curtain

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics November 3rd, 2011


Over the decades, in every fourth year, we have noticed a tendency to close out the presidential nominating contest before the voting has even begun. There is a little of this impatience on display in 2011, too. It is only natural since the campaigns are nearly eternal. “Enough already!” many seem to be shouting.

Here at the Crystal Ball, we love history almost as much as current politics. The lesson of history is clear, as our quick-take chart shows: From 1976 to 2008, there has been a major surprise every time either in Iowa or New Hampshire. A back-of-the-pack candidate greatly exceeds expectations. Or the frontrunner stumbles. Or the field is scrambled in some other way.

First, take a look at Chart 1, which highlight the top finishers in the competitive Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries dating back to 1976.

Chart 1: Iowa/New Hampshire results in competitive presidential nominating contests, 1976-2008

Notice any surprises? Think back:

OK, sure, you say. That’s all in our past. We’ve got a much better fix on 2012. We’ve learned from our mistakes. We’ve got daily — sometimes, hourly — polls to keep us on the beam.

And your cloudy Crystal Ball counters with one question: Given the unimpressive record of early nomination predictions from 1976 to 2008, why should we think it will be any different this time?

Kyle Kondik contributed to this article.