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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg September 20, 2015

Rove says 2012 nomination fight saw many poll leaders over the months

A major poll conducted soon after the second Republican presidential debate showed a huge bump for former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. A survey by CNN found Fiorina shot from 3 percent in early September to 15 percent now, putting her in a statistical tie for second with physician Ben Carson. Real estate billionaire Donald Trump still leads with 24 percent, but he’s down 8 points from the last CNN poll.

The pundits had lots to say about a fluid field. Karl Rove warned against taking any lead in the polls too seriously at this point.

"Let's just remember, we are at the beginning of this process," Rove said on Fox News Sunday on Sept. 20, 2015. "As of now, in 2012, Rick Perry was ahead at 29.9 percent, and we had seven more leads before it finally settled on Mitt Romney on Feb. 28 of 2012. "

Rove said the Republicans might not settle on a nominee until March or even April.

We thought it would be interesting to look back at the 2012 Republican contest and see if the "yellow jersey" moved around as much as Rove said.

The GOP strategist was largely correct.

The 2012 election polls

Rove’s office told us his source was an interactive chart on The bright lines show the rise and fall of several of the candidates.

Perry reached 29.9 percent on Sept. 17, 2011, and had fallen slightly to 28.2 percent on Sept. 20, 2011. So that’s very close to what Rove cited.

RCP 2012.gif


We looked for each candidate’s highest poll average in each period when the lead changed hands. If we take the poll numbers at face value, the lead shifted nine times before Romney took it, held it and went on to win the nomination. For the purists, since most polls have a margin of error of at least 3 percent, we could discount those times when the lead was statistically doubtful. If we did that, we would still end up with six lead changes in the period Rove described.

We should note that the lead sometimes went back to a previous lead holder. Overall, five candidates shared the lead: Romney, Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.



Overall %



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Nov. 12


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Dec. 13




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Other polls

Individual polls from different polling groups generally show a fair bit of movement, but not as much as the aggregated numbers that Rove used. For example, the Pew Research Center poll showed four lead changes. The Fox News poll also came up with four.

These surveys were not done as frequently as all the polls that fed into's average, and so they might miss relatively brief periods when the lead bounced back and forth among Romney, Gingrich, Cain and Santorum.

Flighty voters in the early months

The 2012 Republican nomination saw a robust number of competitors. The race this year is even more crowded. Martin Cohen, a political scientist at James Madison University, said this all feeds into "the media's fetish with the new and exciting." Cohen places very little importance at polls at this point.

"Voters are influenced by media coverage and the post-debate spin,"he told us. "But it doesn't mean that is the way they will ultimately vote or even whether they will vote at all."

Cohen said if you want to spot the real leaders, keep track of who snags the best and most influential endorsements.

Our ruling

Rove said the leader in the race for the Republican nomination changed seven times between September 2011 and the end of February 2012. Using the polling average numbers, that is a fair summary, and some might argue that the lead moved around even more. We found that five individual candidates -- Perry, Romney, Cain, Gingrich and Santorum -- handed the lead back and forth during that time period.

Looking at individual polls, the lead might shift less often, but the window on the race those polls offer is not as detailed as the method Rove used.

There might be minor quibbles about the exact tally, but Rove was in the ballpark. We rate this claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Fox News, Fox News Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015

CNN, Poll: Fiorina rockets to No. 2 behind Trump in GOP field, Sept. 20, 2015

CNN/ORC poll, Poll results, Sept. 20, 2015, 2012 Republican presidential nomination, White House 2012: Republican Nomination, 2016 Republican presidential nomination

Email interview, Martin Cohen, associate professor of political science, James Madison University, Sept. 20, 2015

Email interview, Kristin Davison, spokeswoman, Karl Rove, Sept. 20, 2015

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Rove says 2012 nomination fight saw many poll leaders over the months

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