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Is Time on John McCain's Side?

A Commentary By Allan I. Abramowitz

In a recent Crystal Ball article , Michael Baudinet of the University of Virginia Center for Politics argued that despite a very difficult national political environment for Republicans, John McCain has a good chance of winning the 2008 presidential election because he enjoys one key advantage over his Democratic rival, Barack Obama: McCain clinched his party's nomination three months earlier than Obama. Baudinet presents data showing that the candidate who secured his party's nomination first has won nine of the last ten presidential elections. Wrapping up the nomination early is a significant advantage, according to the article, because it allows a candidate more time to unite his party and prepare for the general election campaign.

An analysis of the Nomination Gap data presented shows that there is a fairly strong relationship between what he labels the Nomination Gap and the results of recent presidential elections. For the ten presidential elections that he includes in his article, the correlation between the vote for the president's party and the Nomination Gap is .60 (I recoded the "nomination gap" variable so that its direction was consistent with party control of the presidency).

But for the same elections the correlation between the vote for the president's party and the Electoral Barometer--a measure of the national political environment based on the president's approval rating, the growth rate of the economy, and the length of time the president's party has controlled the White House--is a much stronger .93. More importantly when I included both the Nomination Gap and the Electoral Barometer as predictors in a regression analysis, the effect of the Electoral Barometer remained very strong and statistically significant while the effect of the Nomination Gap was close to zero and statistically insignificant.

Table 1. Regression Analysis of Presidential Election Results, 1968-2004

Independent Variable


Std. Error












Nomination Gap






Source: Data compiled by author.

The results of the regression analysis indicate that, once one controls for the national political environment, how early the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates clinch their party's nomination has no influence on the outcome of the November election. Based on these results, the fact that John McCain secured his party's nomination three months earlier than Barack Obama will provide little or no benefit in overcoming the hostile political environment that his party faces in 2008.

Dr. Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, and the author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States (2004, McGraw-Hill). He can be contacted via email at polsaa@emory.edu .

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