Interparty primary vote comparisons are a tricky business and do not always correlate with general election outcomes
Unless she suffers through an 11th hour abandonment of hundreds of superdelegates, Hillary Clinton will have the support of at least the 2,383 delegates she needs to win the Democratic nomination at the national convention in Philadelphia this summer.
Nonetheless, with recent national public polls showing Clinton running even at best with presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump – and Bernie Sanders polling much more favorably in such head-to-head matchups – her campaign is forced to field questions as to why Clinton stands the better chance for the party at defeating the New York businessman in November.
In addition to citing her own decisive primary vote lead over Sanders (approximately three million votes), the former Secretary of State has also mentioned her large vote ‘lead’ over Trump.
From Meet the Press on Sunday:
CHUCK TODD: You know, it’s interesting, though, in– there’s a lot of Democrats that are quietly nervous that your candidacy isn’t responding to what the populace wants right now. Right? The populace wants major change. The populace wants major shakeups. And in some ways, your campaign has been about, you’re going to build on the progress Barack Obama has made. That isn’t what this electorate is saying. This electorate is saying they want major changes. We have our own poll. We asked them, “Do you want–” essentially testing your message versus testing his message, even if it comes with an unpredictability. And by ten points, they want the unpredictability. That’s how fed up they are. How do you respond to that?
SEC. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, first of all, I have 2 million more votes than Donald Trump. And I think voters, as opposed to, you know, the kind of back and forth in the public arena, when voters show up to vote, they take that vote seriously.
It is true that Clinton has received north of two million more votes than Trump through the Oregon primary last Tuesday.
But is that a persuasive argument that she will be a better general election candidate than Sanders? And are interparty vote comparisons a meaningful measure for anticipated general election support?
A historical analysis demonstrates there is little guarantee that the nominee who tallied more votes during the primary will do so again in November.
This should make intuitive sense in some cycles, as some nominees are able to capture the nomination with little to no credible opposition (depressing interest and turnout) while others must fight until late into the primary season to wrap up their nomination.
In the modern primary era since 1976, the nominee who won more votes in the primary has lost the general election popular vote in six out of 10 cycles, including three out of seven cycles in which the seat was open or an incumbent president faced bona fide primary opposition.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter (9,593,355 votes) amassed approximately 1.8 million more votes than Ronald Reagan (7,709,793).
However, Reagan received more than 8.4 million more votes than Carter that November en route to 489 electoral votes.
Eight years later, Michael Dukakis (9,817,185 votes) received the support of nearly 1.6 million more Americans in primary contests than George H.W. Bush (8,254,654).
But Bush beat Dukakis by more than seven million votes in the general election.
In 2000, both George W. Bush (10,844,129 votes) and Al Gore (10,626,645) made relatively easy work of their primary rivals with Bush capturing approximately 217,000 more votes in the primaries.
That November, Gore won more than 1.5 million more popular votes, although he narrowly lost in the Electoral College.
Less surprisingly, incumbent presidents who ran uncontested during this period frequently – but not always – won fewer votes during the primary but cruised to victory in the general election:
- 1984: Walter Mondale (6,811,214 primary votes) vs. Ronald Reagan (6,484,987)
- 2004: John Kerry (9,870,033) vs. George W. Bush (7,632,710)
- 2012: Mitt Romney (9,947,433) vs. Barack Obama (8,308,198)
However, in 1996, Bill Clinton (9,730,184) actually eclipsed Bob Dole (8,427,601) in the primary vote count.
During the early (pre-1976) primary era, when there were fewer primaries and the contests awarded proportionally fewer delegates for the total needed to win the nomination, there was actually a stronger correlation between primary and general election vote tallies.
From 1912 through 1972, the major party nominee who earned more primary votes won the White House in 14 of 17 election cycles. The only exceptions were:
- 1912: Both GOP nominee William Taft (766,326) and GOP primary candidate turned Progressive nominee Teddy Roosevelt (1,164,765) won more primary votes than Woodrow Wilson (435,169)
- 1960: Richard Nixon (4,975,938) earned more than three million more primary votes than John Kennedy (1,847,259)
- 1964: Barry Goldwater (2,267,079) gathered more than twice as many primary votes as President Lyndon Johnson (1,106,999)
Note: There have been several cycles in which a major party nominee did not win the most votes in his party’s primary – all but one during the pre-1976 era: Republicans Charles Evans Hughes (1916), Warren Harding (1920), Herbert Hoover (1932), Alf Landon (1936), Wendell Willkie (1940), Thomas Dewey (1944), and Dwight Eisenhower (1952) and Democrats James Cox (1920), John Davis (1924), Adlai Stevenson (1952), Hubert Humphrey (1968), George McGovern (1972), and Hillary Clinton (2008).
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