Only once in the past 76 years has the candidate who was ahead at this point lost the popular vote

One of our Applesauce regulars suggested here the other day that it’s still not too late for Mitt Romney to come from behind and defeat Barack Obama.

He cited as precedent the situation in the summer of 1980 when incumbent Jimmy Carter led challenger Ronald Reagan by seven percentage points in one of the polls.

Ah, but that was summertime, not early fall. Moreover, the poll at issue was skewed somewhat by the 21 percent who favored independent candidate John Anderson.

History shows us that the man in the photo above was the only presidential candidate since 1936 to win the popular vote after trailing in the polls at this late date.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Romney can’t pull it off. It just means that history is not on his side. But, yes, some unforeseen occurrence could sink Obama’s proverbial ship. To politely paraphrase a familiar adage, fecal matter happens.

Polling analyst Nate Silver covers this historical angle and other matters HERE:

Of the 19 candidates who led in the polls at this stage since 1936, 18 won the popular vote (Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 is the exception), and 17 won the Electoral College (Al Gore lost it in 2000, along with Mr. Dewey)…

If you eliminate the candidates with double-digit leads, the front-runner’s record is eight Electoral College wins in 10 tries, or a batting average of 80 percent.

This a simple method — to the point of being crude. But it’s interesting, nevertheless, that the 80 percent figure corresponds quite well with the FiveThirtyEight forecast, which gave Mr. Obama a 78 percent chance of winning as of Sunday night, and with the odds on offer by bookmakers, many of whom list Mr. Obama as about a 4-to-1 favorite…

There has not been any tendency, at least at this stage of the race, for the contest to break toward the challenging candidate.

Instead, it’s actually the incumbent-party candidate who has gained ground on average since 1936. On average, the incumbent candidate added 4.6 percentage points between the late September polls and his actual Election Day result, whereas the challenger gained 2.5 percentage points…

To the extent there’s a useful rule of thumb about a candidate achieving 50 percent in the polls, it is this: a candidate who reaches 50 percent of the vote late in the race is almost certain to win. Below that threshold, there are fewer guarantees. But a candidate (incumbent or challenger) at 48 or 49 percent of the vote will normally be a clear favorite.

Nonetheless, another theme: although Mr. Obama’s raw vote share looks reasonably strong, Mr. Obama’s margin over Mr. Romney is not that impressive for an elected incumbent. On average, elected incumbents have led by 7.7 percentage points that this stage of the race — larger than Mr. Obama’s advantage, which is in the range of four points instead.


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