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When we examined what Gov. Scott Walker said on national talk shows following his re-election, we promised to fact-check one particular statement he uttered.
Walker made the claim Nov. 11, 2014 on Fox & Friends, as speculation built that he would seek the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
Walker was asked about his relatively low score, in an exit poll of Wisconsin voters, about whether he would make a good president.
In replying, he changed the focus, making what is essentially a definitive claim about national polls on possible presidential contenders.
"No, I mean, in the end, any poll right now is ridiculous," the governor said.
"You look over the past four or five elections, people who poll high at the beginning are not the people who end up being the nominees."
Given that Walker ranks ninth out of 11 potential GOP presidential candidates, according to Real Clear Politics’ polling averages, such a claim, if true, could mean a run isn’t necessarily a lost cause.
Of course, the 2016 election is still two years away, most voters aren’t paying close attention and the potential candidates will do plenty of jockeying in the meantime.
"Campaigns certainly matter," pollster Gary Langer, who directs ABC News polling, told us. "However, being an early leader has its advantages."
The poll alluded to by the Fox interviewer was an exit poll of Wisconsin voters who had just cast ballots in the Nov. 4, 2014 mid-term elections.
But only 42 percent of the state voters in the exit poll, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said Walker would make a good president.
We asked Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick for evidence to back Walker’s statement about early polling in presidential races.
She noted some instances in which an early front-runner did not get nominated for president, including two in 2008. Hillary Clinton, who held a big lead in early polling, lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama; and Rudy Giuliani, who dueled with John McCain in early polling, lost the GOP nomination to McCain.
But Walker’s claim takes us all the way back to the 1996 presidential election. So let’s get a fuller account of early polling and who the nominees turned out to be.
Early presidential-preference surveys
To avoid comparing apples and oranges, we looked at polling only for open seats; in other words, polls for nomination races in which an incumbent president was not seeking his party’s nomination for another term.
In 2016, that’s the playing field for both parties.
We relied primarily on polling data provided by researcher Kathleen Weldon from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and work that FiveThirtyEight.com blogger Nate Silver did in 2011 for the New York Times. Both assembled data from major national polls.
As we’ll see, despite Walker's sweeping claim, there are a number of examples that don’t support him.
1996: Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was the clear Republican front-runner and he won the GOP nomination.
Roper data showed him well in the lead in nearly every early poll. And Silver’s measure found Dole had a 39-point edge over Texas Sen. Phil Gramm in polls taken from January to June of 1995.
Dole lost the election to Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton.
2000: Both parties had clear early front-runners and both of those candidates became the nominees.
Roper said George W. Bush led all other Republican contenders by September 1997 and Vice President Al Gore was well ahead of other Democratic contenders five months earlier.
In Silver’s averaging -- for polling done from January to June 1999 -- Bush led Dole’s wife, North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, by 28 points while Gore led his nearest rival, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, by 33 points.
Bush edged Gore in the election.
2004: Gore was the clear front-runner in early polls, well ahead of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, but he decided nearly two years before the election not to run.
Later, in early 2003, Kerry and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman were tied in the polls, according to the Pew Research Center. Kerry eventually claimed the Democratic nomination.
Kerry lost the election to Bush, who won a second term.
2008: The results in this election were mixed.
As we noted, Hillary Clinton was the clear front-runner, initially polling well ahead of Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, before losing the Democratic nomination to Obama. Later, she led Obama by 15 points in Silver's averaging of the poll results from January through June 2007.
On the Republican side, as we noted, Guiliani and McCain polled well early. Roper said Giuliani, the former New York mayor, led McCain, the Arizona senator, in most polls in 2005, but only by a few points..
McCain lost the election to Obama.
2012: One of the candidates who polled well early won the GOP nomination.
Roper said polls from 2009 revealed a tight race among former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, before Romney claimed the Republican nomination.
Romney lost to Obama, who won a second term.
So how does this all shake out?
Five contenders -- Bob Dole in 1996, Bush and Gore in 2000, McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 -- all scored high in the earliest polls and went on to win their party’s nomination.
Walker said that in "the past four or five" presidential elections, "people who poll high at the beginning are not the people who end up being the nominees."
Some who polled high since 1996 didn’t become the nominee, of course, but that isn’t enough evidence to back Walker’s flat statement. Indeed, five contenders who polled well early did, in fact, become the presidential nominee.
For a statement that has only an element of truth, our rating is Mostly False.
Fox News, Fox & Friends interview of Gov. Scott Walker (quote at 4:00), Nov. 11, 2014
Email interview, Gov. Scott Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick, Nov. 14, 2014
Interview, Langer Research Associates president Gary Langer, Nov. 18, 2014
Pew Research Center, "How Reliable Are the Early Presidential Polls?," Feb. 14, 2007
Presidential Studies Quarterly (via Nexis), "Two parties, two types of nominees, two paths to winning a presidential nomination, 1972-2004," June 1, 2007
Email interview, Roper Center research coordinator Kathleen Weldon, Nov. 18, 2014
New York Times, "A Brief History of Primary Polling, Part I," March 31, 2011
New York Times, "A Brief History of Primary Polling, Part II," April 4, 2011
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