The media appetite for measuring the prospects of individual
candidates for president has probably not ever been greater,
especially with so many nominally serious candidates in the
field for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
At the same time, the attempts at ranking and measuring the voter
support for these candidates have probably not ever been so fraught
with obstacles and uncertainty.
The first obstacle was already apparent as the 2016 votes were tallied,
and its historic upset not anticipated in the interpretation of the polls,
even those published on the eve of election day. As has been pointed
out in their defense, many national polls were relatively accurate in
measuring the final overall popular vote (carried by Hillary Clinton).
But the presidential election is constitutionally an electoral college
contest state-by-state, and the nation-wide polls did not predict the
Polling today has many problems beyond just pundit interpretation,
including locating voters willing to be polled, finding them available,
determining if they are likely to vote, and accumulating a sample size
that will result in an accurate measurement. Finally, at this very early
stage, polls reflect name recognition and little more. Only some of the
many expected to run have formally announced their candidacies, there
have been none of the all-important debates, and for now at least, the
first presidential caucuses and primaries are a year away.
Depending on a decision by the New Hampshire secretary of state, the
first-in-the-nation primary could be moved up a month or more, and if
it is, presenting extraordinary technical difficulties for the Iowa
caucuses which are supposed to precede New Hampshire. To make
matters even more complicated this cycle, the largest-in-the-nation
primary, California, has been moved from June to just after New
Hampshire. There is a reasonable possibility that individual campaigns
might downgrade Iowa and New Hampshire, and concentrate their
early efforts in the much larger state and its much bigger number of
delegates. A decision by New Hampshire won’t be made before
September (7 months from now). The earliest debates in Iowa are
tentatively set for August.
In recent presidential election cycles, eventual nominees showed their
strength only after debates and primaries/caucuses began, and that
occurred with usually far fewer serious contenders than apparently
will compete for the Democratic nomination this cycle.
To further complicate assessing the whole field, the first big surprise
was the emergence of a serious possible independent presidential
candidate, Starbucks CEO and billionaire Howard Schultz. The leftward
march of so many Democratic Party hopefuls has not stopped, but party
strategists were reminded that their party still has many centrist liberal
About a dozen major Democratic candidates are now officially in, but at
least another dozen or more are likely to announce their candidacies,
including the man who leads in all early polls, former Vice President Joe
A characteristic of many (but not all) recent cycles, especially for
Democrats, has been the emergence of previously less well-known
candidates. Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Gary Hart in 1984, Howard Dean
in 2004 and Bernie Sanders in 2016 each made waves, yet fell short. On
the other hand, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama won nomination and
election. It is interesting to note that, although the favorites won the
Democratic nomination in 1968 (Hubert Humphrey), in 1984 (Walter
Mondale), in 2004 (John Kerry), and in 2016 (Hillary Clinton), they each
lost in November.
The most well-known Democratic presidential candidates in this cycle
are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg
--- all senior in age. The same is true for Hillary Clinton who has not
ruled out another run. But there are at least 20 younger and less
well-known probable candidates. How can such a large field be usefully
polled or otherwise ranked at this time?
The answer is: It almost certainly can’t be.
Months from now, at least one or two candidates, perhaps a few more,
will emerge. Until then, polls are mostly meaningless (if not misleading),
and predictions are like flipping a coin with more than two sides.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Caselman. All rights reserved.