Monday, July 30, 2007

Primaries Past

A quick reminder not to assume what is today will be so tomorrow.

The 2004 Democratic primary race as of late July 2003 showed a continuous first place held by Lieberman, though with a slow but steady erosion. Kerry and Gephardt locked in a long running tie, and Howard Dean a rising 4th place at about 12% support. Clark's late entry and sharp rise hadn't happened. Edwards looked like a goner as his initial 9% had sunk to about 5%. So from this, who would be the candidates left standing after Iowa?

But of course the dynamics changed. Between summer and late fall, Dean became the "inevitable" nominee, sparking talk of running mates and gaining Gore's December endorsement. Kerry by that point was under 10%.

And then Iowa happened, and support shifted dramatically to Kerry and Edwards and away from Dean. (And Gephardt and Lieberman were gone.)

To those who say this is clear evidence that early polling is useless, I'd say no-- early polling is reflecting the dynamics of the race. But the dynamics are highly fluid and the point of the polling is not to predict the winner from today's polls, but to understand how the race is moving and ultimately to look back at how we got to the final outcome.

The great mistake analysts make is to look at current polls and conclude from them that the dynamics are fixed. That Dean can't rise. That Dean is a lock. That Kerry was inevitable after all.
The current Democratic race appears, as of last week's polling, to be relatively static. And compared to the Republicans that is certainly true. But let's not jump to the conclusion that the polls after Labor Day have to look like today's just because today's look like June 1. The polls are of interest for what they show about the history of the race so far and how it stands today. Not for their ability to predict what happens in a month or two.