5 Reasons Your Leading Candidate's Losing

WASHINGTON ( MainStreet) -- The 2012 presidential election can't be won in October 2011.

That hasn't prevented the 2012 presidential hopefuls and the news outlets that follow them from trying to persuade the American public otherwise. Republican pizza man Herman Cain won a straw poll in Florida? Good for him. Texas Gov. Rick Perry works to regain his lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney from polling the month before? Good luck, Rick.

President Barack Obama would have beaten Perry by five to 11 points were the election held last month, according to USA Today, Rassmussen, Reuters, Bloomberg and Public Policy Polling numbers? The White House must be relieved.

It's not that the numbers don't matter at this point in the campaign. Ask former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty how he felt about them just before ending his short-lived shot at the presidency. See if Jon Huntsman's momentum has improved after routinely polling at 1% to 2% among the Republican field.

Similarly, it's impossible to use early numbers to anoint a candidate president-, senator-, congressman- or comptroller-apparent or even as the favorite to win their party's nomination when the general election is more than a year away.

This doesn't prevent candidates from pockmarking political history with preemptive celebrations and war chests full of unwarranted hubris. In an attempt to briefly interrupt the political world's big-budget game of make-believe, we compiled five examples of the funny things that have happened to political favorites on the way to the party conventions and polling stations. The results don't bode well for this fall's frontrunners:

Martha Coakley loses to Scott Brown
2010 Massachusetts Senate Special Election
Reason: Hubris
When longtime office holder and "Lion of the Senate" Ted Kennedy died in 2009, Massachusetts Democrats spent so much time squabbling over who among them was the rightful heir to his Senate seat that they didn't see the National Guardsman and male model in the Chevy Colorado coming up on them in the rearview.

Kennedy had occupied his seat in the Senate since 1962 and only took it after his brother, John F. Kennedy, vacated it to run for president. Perhaps Massachusetts Democrats could be forgiven for considering it "The Kennedy Seat" until Scott Brown, a state senator from Wrentham, declared that it was "The People's Seat."

In any case, it was the Democrats' office to lose and Massachusetts attorney general and Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley and her handlers did a great job of letting it go.

Coakley led Brown with 58% of the potential vote in October and November polls conducted by Suffolk University and Western New England College. Instead of playing to win, however, Coakley was happy to sit back and protect the lead. This involved scoffing at standing in the cold and shaking hands with the public before the Boston Bruins' New Year's Day Winter Classic game at Fenway Park, calling former Red Sox pitcher and sock-bloodying 2004 World Series hero Curt Schilling "a Yankees fan," misspelling Massachusetts on her campaign posters and all but ignoring suburbia.

Brown, meanwhile, loaded up his pickup truck with a platform of fiscal temperance, small government and opposition to Obama's health care reform bill. Those campaign pillars and ads portraying Brown as an average, truck-drivin' Joe who's not afraid to stand out in the cold and shake some hands -- or, you know, campaign -- turned a 58% majority for Coakley into 50% support for Brown when Suffolk's polling team revisited the subject in mid-January.

By the time the February election arrived, Brown had drawn millions of dollars in support from politically like-minded donors across the country and largely succeeded in painting Coakley as an elite, effete insider who had only "attack ads" to offer the voting public. Brown swept the suburbs and left Boston and the Berkshires for Coakley en route to a nearly 52% share of the vote.

Though Massachusetts Democrats turned aside every Republican challenge during the 2010 midterm elections, Brown's win not only took the "Kennedy seat" but gave the GOP the momentum it needed to cut the Democrats' Senate majority and take control of the House.

The Republican field surpassed by John McCain
2008 presidential primaries
Reason: Counting out an opponent
At this point in 2007, John McCain was an afterthought.

McCain kicked off his campaign already in the bloated middle of the GOP's corpulent pack of hopefuls and only sank himself further through a series of missteps. A trip to Iraq promoting its safety was undone by a suicide bombing three days after his departure. McCain's Senate record took a hit when rivals picked on him for missing votes and supporting controversial "path to citizenship" immigration reform.

McCain's campaign was dealt a blow when he opted out of the Iowa straw poll, his fundraising was in the tank, his campaign staff's payroll was cut in half by July and his advisers were bailing. With no money and little support, McCain soldiered on through debates and sponsored events.

By the time 2008 rolled around, GOP candidates Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudolph Giuliani were doing a mighty fine job of bludgeoning each other into vulnerability. Huckabee took the Iowa caucuses in January, but somewhere along the road to New Hampshire McCain's campaign rediscovered its mojo. He held more than 100 town meetings in the Granite State and gave Romney fits during debates. Just five days after losing the Iowa Caucuses, McCain won the New Hampshire primaries with 37% of the vote.

McCain suffered setbacks in Michigan and Nevada, but won the South Carolina and Florida primaries en route to a dominant showing on Super Tuesday. Romney was out of the race by Feb. 7 and threw his support to McCain a week later. By March, McCain completed his comeback by storming through every primary but Kansas' and forcing Huckabee out of the picture.

When candidates such as John Huntsman and Newt Gingrich are feeling despondent about their chances, they should watch McCain primary victories from 2008 and realize it's not over. Then again, it has to be hard for any GOP candidate to look at McCain's success in early 2008 and see it as a positive in light of everything that transpired afterward -- and wonder how to feel about Sarah Palin declining to jump into the mix.

Hillary Clinton loses to Barack Obama
2008 presidential primaries
Reason: Over-reliance on early polls
Obama wasn't just behind in the polls at this point in 2007; they had him losing to people who weren't even running.

In October 2007, Obama was polling well behind Hillary Clinton nationally and in New Hampshire, with CBS ( CBS) News giving Clinton 45% of the vote to Obama's 16%, Reuters/Zogby/American Research Group putting Clinton at 38% to Obama's 24% and Newsweek showing Clinton with 43% to Obama's 24%. Rassmussen Reports gave Obama even worse news at the beginning of the month by including Al Gore -- the Democratic answer to Palin or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- in a poll that resulted in a 22% third-place finish for Obama behind Gore (32%) and Clinton (37%).

Even after 2008 came and Obama won the Jan. 4 Iowa caucuses that featured a third-place finish by Clinton, much of the political world had one reaction: So? Clinton turned around and won the New Hampshire primaries five days later with 39% of the vote to Obama's 36.5%. Even after taking the majority of Nevada's national delegates a few weeks later and the South Carolina primary at the end of January, Obama was polling behind Clinton and wouldn't post a lead or pull into so much as a tie until a Jan. 31 CBS News/ New York Times poll that gave Obama and Clinton 41% of the vote each.

It was only after Obama took 13 of 22 states on Super Tuesday at the beginning of February that he regularly began polling even with or ahead of Clinton. Even as late as May 1, after Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary but trailed Obama's delegate count, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed Clinton with 51% support. It wasn't until Obama's May 6 primary win in North Carolina that Clinton completed the shift from favorite to underdog. Her campaign would end little more than a month later.

The secretary of state appointment was a nice consolation prize, but Clinton being named the most popular politician in America in a Bloomberg poll last month probably would sting less if she were sitting in the Oval Office.

Ross Perot loses because of Ross Perot
1992 presidential election
Reason: Sheer craziness
The 1992 presidential race not only wasn't wrapped up by fall of 1991, it hadn't even begun.

George Bush Sr.'s defense of his White House seat didn't begin in earnest until Feb. 20, 1992, when Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot entered the race as an independent candidate with the Reform Party. Any pundits who had the Democratic hopeful picked by the fall before or who were backing Bush's bid were immediately punished for their haste.

Perot jumped into the race with a surplus of data, charts and a firm plan. Perot didn't like the state of the country's books, didn't like its participation in the Gulf War and just didn't like the look of the George H.W. Bush administration. When he announced his candidacy on CNN's ( TWX) Larry King Live he laid out his plan for balancing the federal budget, protecting U.S. trade and ending the outsourcing of U.S. jobs.

Later, he bought infomercials spelling out his plan to raise gasoline taxes and cut Social Security. He used dozens of charts to break down his arguments and ideas into simple terms and channeled an electorate angered and frustrated by Bush's broken tax promise, generating enough support to translate to 39% of the potential vote in a June Time magazine poll and a wide lead over Bush and Bill Clinton. Drubbing Bush and Clinton in their first debate, meanwhile, helped put Perot on the ballot in all 50 states.

Even if politicos waited until the end of June to pick a favorite, they were still way off. With more than a third of the country in his corner, Perot started forcing staffers to sign loyalty oaths and demanded full control of the campaign. After his campaign chief quit in July, Perot dropped out of the race and stayed out until Oct. 1, after his name was on every ballot in the nation and he felt compelled to act.

His running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, seemed lost and overmatched in debates with Al Gore and Dan Quayle, and his "giant sucking sound" quote about U.S. jobs moving to Mexico through NAFTA was lost amid his berating of the press and claims Republican operatives were trying to sabotage him. By the time the last votes were counted in November, Perot hadn't garnered a single electoral vote and had succeeded only in throwing the race to Clinton.

Thomas Dewey loses to Harry Truman
1948 presidential election
Reason: Over-reliance on late polls
This election is the poster child for bad political prognostication and still a reminder that nobody's a lock for the presidency until all the votes are counted.

Truman was supposed to be toast by Election Night 1948. The Republicans had taken over both houses of Congress in the midterms two years earlier, the Democrats had divided as Truman's former Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace formed the competing Progressive Party for a run against Truman and polls showed Truman trailing Dewey by double-digit percentage points. Even the bosses in the Democratic party wanted Truman gone in favor of former Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and relented only when Eisenhower rebuffed the party and later revealed he was a Republican.

The late addition of a civil rights platform at the party's convention led to yet another split as Southern delgates followed South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond out of the convention and later nominated him for president as part of the "States' Rights Democratic Party."

Somebody forgot to tell Truman he was doomed, however. He attacked the "do-nothing" Republican Congress even as his supporters were getting ready to pack it in and touted economic recovery from a 1946-47 recession as well as the Berlin Airlift and other foreign policy achievements.

By the time polls started closing, early results indicated Dewey hadn't taken as big a bite out of Truman's support as he'd thought and that the Democratic splinter factions were performing less effectively than expected. Truman lost Pennsylvania, New York and much of the Northeast.

The Chicago Tribune's "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline seems absurd now, but polls at press time showed Dewey ahead in Ohio, Illinois and California -- where he'd win with less than 1% of the vote. About 150,000 copies of the paper went out before it became clear that wasn't the case and Truman was well on his way to a 49.6% to 45% victory.

If the Tribune couldn't get it right hours before the election, how's some blathering blogger or 24-hour-news talking head going to make the right call more than a year early? Here's a hint: They won't.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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