INDIANAPOLIS – The favored disclaimer of financial advisors – past performance does not guarantee future results – is applicable to politics, too. It should go without saying that a candidate is best off running their present race rather than a past race. But basking in the glory of past success is an urge hard to resist. 

In this year’s race for attorney general, for instance, supporters of incumbent Curtis Hill, and Hill himself, when faced with questions that he might incur substantial headwinds in a general election campaign, frequently cite the fact that he received more raw votes than any candidate in Indiana electoral history four years ago as evidence of his unshakable base of support.

Does that history-making run shed any light on what could happen this year? Not even close. In fact, it’s utterly meaningless. If past performance were any guarantee of future results, we would have today a Sen. Richard Mourdock, a Congressman Greg Zoeller and a 5th District Congressional nominee Kelly Mitchell. But we don’t. Each of their subsequent runs for public office, which came immediately after leading the statewide ticket in their previous cycle on the ballot, failed to translate into victory. 

Mourdock, for his part, fell into the past performance trap in his 2012 campaign for U.S. Senate. I actually recall his Twitter profile including a mention that he received more statewide votes in 2010 than Dan Coats, who was returning to the U.S. Senate and ultimately became director of national intelligence, and Tim Berry, who went on to win his fourth statewide election in 12 years before stepping down to take helm of the Indiana Republican Party. While Mourdock did go on to defeat Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, he lost to Joe Donnelly in the general election later that year.

At the same time, Zoeller impressively bested Mike Pence on the statewide ticket, as did Mitt Romney, Glenda Ritz and Joe Donnelly, before finishing third behind Trey Hollingsworth and State Sen. Erin Houchin in his bid for the Republican nomination in the 9th Congressional District four years later. Of that 2012 bunch, today Romney is a senator from Utah, Pence is vice president of the United States and the others are no longer in elected office. And Mitchell, who garnered more votes than Mike Braun, Connie Lawson and Tera Klutz two years ago, came in sixth in her campaign for the 5th Congressional District Republican nomination earlier this month.

What does that say? Beyond the well-known and highly publicized races of president, governor and U.S. Senate, down ballot races are more a function of circumstance and environment than a reflection of broad and sustained electoral support for a candidate. For example, in each of the cases outlined there was no Libertarian candidate to siphon votes away from the eventual victor. And rarely do we see coordinated attack campaigns against candidates for attorney general, treasurer and auditor. Those races don’t stir the same type of emotion that the top of the ticket does.

Name identification, the measure of how many registered or likely voters are familiar with a candidate, is a purer indicator of potential support. But there, too, statewide candidates encounter a major disadvantage. 

To that end, I once asked an apparently familiar statewide elected official to share with me their highest level of name identification over their years of service. The answer? It crested at 25%. No more than 25% of Hoosier voters could acknowledge recognizing the official’s name after years in local and statewide office, yet that official still consistently pulled in the neighborhood of one million votes on Election Day. 

Candidates and their supporters – not only Hill’s, but all those who enjoy using this talking point – would be wise to take heed. There can be more hype than hope in believing in a candidate’s past success. Mourdock fully embodied the Tea Party movement prevalent in one election, but fell short when the pendulum swung in the next. And Zoeller and Mitchell saw their fortunes turn when self-funding candidates were alongside them on the ballot.

What does this mean for today? For Hill, 2020 looks nothing like 2016, just as 2012 looked nothing like 2010 for Mourdock, 2016 looked nothing like 2012 for Zoeller and 2020 looked nothing like 2018 for Mitchell. Hill will, if nominated, face a well-funded Democrat opponent in a race that will be unlike the sleepy affair that was his initial statewide foray four years ago.

Delegates deserve the right to make their voices heard – and they will – but in doing so they need to avoid a false sense of comfort. This election is a monster unlike any other and Hill’s 2016 performance is no guarantee of his 2020 results, neither at the convention nor in the general election. That’s assuming he gets there.

(Full disclosure: Although one of the candidates for the Republican nomination for attorney general is a colleague, I am not involved in the present nomination battle aside from being an appointed convention delegate.) 

Pete Seat is a former White House spokesman for President George W. Bush and campaign spokesman for former Director of National Intelligence and U.S. Sen. Dan Coats. Currently he is a vice president with Bose Public Affairs Group in Indianapolis. He is also an Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow and author of the 2014 book, “The War on Millennials.”