On Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is expected to become the first legitimate candidate to officially enter the Republican primary field for 2016. If he manages to gain his party's nomination, he'll have started with weaker prior-year poll numbers than anyone since 2000. With weaker numbers, in fact, than anyone since Bill Clinton.
The only recent party nominee who saw numbers as low as Cruz's -- whose highest Real Clear Polling polling average so far in 2015 has been 5.5 percent -- is John Kerry, in 2003. Since Real Clear Politics doesn't have available averages for 2004, we're somewhat comparing apples and applesauce. But Kerry's percentage of support in NBC/Wall Street Journal polls is the only figure since 2000 to be near Cruz's.
Part of the reason that Kerry and Cruz's numbers dipped so low, of course, is that each was participating in a fairly crowded field. There are a nearly uncountable number of Republicans who've stated interest in running this year; the 2004 Democratic field was smaller but still large. The more candidates, the more they divvy up the pie of voters -- and the smaller everyone's slice.
What's important to note about Kerry, though, is that he started the year in much, much stronger position. If you look at Kerry's 2003, it's a slow slide down toward Cruz numbers as former Vermont governor Howard Dean surged. Kerry's having started at the top helps explain his sudden spike back to the leading position in early 2004: He was always seen as someone voters could support. Cruz doesn't have that same luxury.
In 2011, FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver did a nice recap of the history of presidential primary polling -- a history which is not as lengthy or robust as you might think. He first articulated how generally reliable Republican prior-year primary polling had been since 1976, with averages of prior-year polls identifying the front-runners as Ford, Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush and ... Giuliani, with McCain in a close second.
On the Democratic side, though, Silver found that it has been much more loosey-goosey. The example that Cruz will almost certainly want to latch onto is Bill Clinton's run-up to 1992. During the first six months of the prior year, Clinton average a tiny 1.7 percent in the polls. He didn't announce until October 1991; during the second half of the year he averaged 8.3 percent, which was on par with other leading candidates, once Silver adjusted for name recognition. That's a question in Cruz's case, too. In a Quinnipiac poll from earlier this month, nearly half of voters said they hadn't heard enough about Cruz to make up their minds.
Cruz will point to that fact as he makes the case for his candidacy, as he will remind people of his come-from-behind win in Texas' Republican Senate primary as an example of his campaigning prowess. But he may also want to get used to the inevitable awkwardness of comparing himself to someone named Clinton.