The September Reset

By Jim Ellis

Sept. 6, 2016
— Labor Day is always viewed as the traditional general election initiation benchmark for presidential campaigns, so it is important to see where the candidates stand now that we have reached this point in time.

During the Aug. 24-30 period, five national polling entities surveyed the national electorate. The five: USA Today/Suffolk University, Rasmussen Reports, Fox News, Reuters/Ipsos, and The Economist/YouGov find a margin range of Hillary Clinton topping Donald Trump by seven percentage points (USA/Suffolk: Aug. 24-29, 1,000 US likely voters, 42-35-7-4 percent, including Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein) to the Republican going up by a single point (Rasmussen Reports; Aug. 29-30: 1,000 US likely voters, 40-39-7-3 percent).

Together, the five polls produce a net average Clinton edge of 3.0 percentage points with neither candidate exceeding 42 percent support nor dropping below 35 percent.

Turning to a historical comparison, where have other presidential campaigns stood on Sept. 1, and how can previous patterns help us project what may happen in this current election?

For the past eight consecutive national elections, the candidate leading on Sept. 1, according to the Gallup research organization, placed first in every Election Day popular vote count. This is true even for Al Gore in 2000, who was leading the Gallup Poll 47-44 percent on Sept. 1. As we know, despite receiving 543,895 more popular votes, Gore would lose the Electoral College count to George W. Bush.

Another interesting pattern emerges post-Labor Day. Though the leading candidate on Sept. 1 has captured the national popular vote every time since 1984, inclusive, in six of the last 10 elections that same Sept. 1 leader has lost support during the final two-month interval.

In the modern era, only Barack Obama (2012), George H.W. Bush (1988), and Ronald Reagan (1984 and 1980) improved their popular vote standing between Sept. 1 and Election Day. Bill Clinton dropped 9.4 percentage points from what was a 15-point lead on Sept. 1, 1992, which must be discounted because Independent Ross Perot had exited the race by that time but would later rejoin the campaign and take 19 percent of the popular vote.

The candidate losing the most support from Sept. 1 to Election Day but still hanging on to win the national contest was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter held a 51-36 percent Gallup Poll lead over President Gerald Ford on Sept. 1, but lost all but two points of it, winning the popular vote by only a 50.1 – 48.0 percent split.

In the past 20 years, again eliminating the schizophrenic 1992 election because of Perot’s entry, withdrawal, and entry again, the Sept. 1 polling leader has lost an average support factor of 2.4 percentage points in the final two months even when winning the popular vote. If we look at only the candidates who lost support, remembering that President Obama actually gained 2.9 percentage points from Sept. 1, 2012 to Election Day, the average loss is 3.8, with a range of -0.8 (Obama 2008) to -8.5 (Clinton 1996).

With Hillary Clinton holding an average 3.0 percent polling advantage yesterday, her margin becomes razor thin or non-existent if the recent historical patterns repeat themselves in 2016. Therefore, past performance suggests that this presidential race is a long way from being over.

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