History Shows an Early Lead Means Little As Presidential Campaigns Wear On

WASHINGTON (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) -

Remember presidential contenders Rudy Giuliani? Gary Hart? Mitt Romney’s father?

They were front-runners in national polls at this point in past presidential election cycles. By the time people actually started voting, they were afterthoughts. That’s why today’s top-tier candidates shouldn’t get smug. Not even Hillary Clinton.

“People aren’t paying much attention right now,” said Andrew Kohut, founding director of the Pew Research Center.

Rarely in the past 50 years has a non-incumbent Democrat led year-before polls and become the party’s presidential nominee. The exception was former Vice President Walter Mondale, who held on through 1983 and 1984, only to get shellacked in the general election by President Ronald Reagan.

Some early front-runners wound up not running, such as New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1991. Some were leveled by underdog insurgents, such as 1971 favorite Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), who fell to Sen. George McGovern (D-SD).

Others were victims of their own gaffes, notably Michigan Gov. George Romney in 1967, a Republican who said American generals and diplomats gave him a “brainwashing” about the Vietnam War.

Some benefited from being well-known, but only until others caught up. Adlai Stevenson had already run twice in the 1950s and was a 1959 front-runner, but John F. Kennedy wound up the Democratic nominee. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate and led party polls through much of 2003. He ran a distant fifth in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary and was soon gone from the race.

Eight years ago, Clinton was the strong favorite while barely known Barack Obama was starting his third year in the U.S. Senate. She led the University of Iowa survey in August 2007, but by December, polls in the nation’s first caucus state showed a virtual tie with Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. In January, Obama easily won the caucus and Clinton finished third.

Among Republicans, Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, was an exception. He had a wide lead in early 2007 polls, then faded fast as Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney surged.

For less recognizable candidates, early leads are mixed blessings.

This year’s rising star so far is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who’s vaulted into the top tier of possible 2016 Republican presidential candidates. His showing “can be very helpful, because it gets you known fast,” said David Woodard, a Clemson, S.C., Republican consultant. That name recognition could help Walker raise money and woo big-name staffers, Woodard said.

It also means new attention to Walker’s record, temperament and behavior, and sometimes that scrutiny can hurt.

What about 2016? Clinton is enduring new scrutiny of her emails  while she was secretary of state. She slipped six percentage points in a CNN/ORC poll of Democrats earlier this month.