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What 2020 hopefuls can learn from ghosts of Septembers past

We are about to cross into a new zone in presidential politicking, moving from “it’s too early” to “it all matters” in the Democratic nomination fight. This threshold has a name: September.

The PBS NewsHour looked at the past six presidential races and found some patterns in the Septembers before an election year.

Major candidates fall.

The ninth month regularly brings some shakeups in the pack. Often a candidate at or near the top of polls watches their numbers go south. Some, like Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Mitt Romney in 2012, survive. Others, like Scott Walker in 2016 or Elizabeth Dole in 1999, end their campaigns quickly.

Some examples:

  • September 2015.(GOP). Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had been seen as a conservative favorite dropped out. So did former Texas governor Rick Perry.
  • September 2015. (Democrats). Clinton saw her steepest drop of that campaign – 10 points.
  • September 2011. (GOP). Romney slipped into second place in the last week in August and spent a rough September slowly climbing back.
  • September 2007. (Democrats). Clinton dropped, by three points. It was one of her largest one-month dips of the 2008 campaign.
  • September 1999. (GOP). Former Vice President Dan Quayle quit the race. And Dole, who had been in second place in national polls, started seeing her numbers slide. She would drop out one month later.

A surprising candidate rises — sometimes briefly.

In the fall before a presidential election year, party voters seem to have a taste for the new and unexpected. This is especially true for Republicans. In their primaries, we repeatedly see a sudden surge by an upstart. These usually do not last, but are impossible to ignore.

  • September 2015. (GOP). Ben Carson saw a meteoric rise, with his average poll ratings doubling from just more than 10 percent to 20 percent. He would go on to briefly take the lead in November. His numbers dropped sharply after that.
  • September 2011. (GOP). Perry, in his first run, soared 10 points in September to take a large lead over Romney. Just under a month later, his debate performances led to the sharpest polling plummet of any candidate in modern presidential politics.
  • September 2011, Pt. 2. (GOP). As Perry slid, Herman Cain began an incredible surge in late September moving from fifth place to first place within a month.
  • September 2007. (GOP). Republicans Fred Thompson and eventual nominee John McCain both saw jumps in their polls, with Thompson’s being a large seven-point spike.

This September has its own factors.

Add to the historic data, some unique specifics for 2019.

The next debate. The third debate, scheduled for the second week in September, may be the first single-stage debate for Democrats. Ten candidates have qualified for the debate in Houston. The deadline for any others to make it is tomorrow, Aug. 28. If this number holds, it will be the first time that voters see all of the Democratic frontrunners on the same stage at the same time.

Congress. Congress could get quite hot this month, with House Democrats planning concentrated action on guns as well as their investigation of the president, which includes discussion of whether to pass Articles of Impeachment. Add to that, most federal spending is set to run out Sept. 30, allowing for another possible government shutdown. With nearly half of the Democratic field in Congress, this could be an opportunity to shine or sink for any of them.