I’ve suggested before (and still believe) that current polls tell us nothing of any serious value about who will win the Democratic nomination in 2020. I can’t stop looking at the polls, but that’s just a personal failing. I wrote recently about the one year I covered the Iowa caucus, the year of Howard Dean’s crash in Iowa (and no, it wasn’t because he screamed), which is a pretty good reminder that we won’t know the future until it stops being the future because it became the present.
So I laughed/cried at Paul Waldman’s recent Washington Post column, headlined “Here’s what the early Democratic primary polls really tell us,” in which he (without meaning to) gave the single best reason not to believe what the early Democratic primary polls tell us.
Right at the top, Waldman tells us that at this stage in the 2016 contest for the Republican nomination the polls showed “Jeb Bush leading the race, followed by Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson.”
The three Republican candidates who ended up being even slightly consequential in the late stages of the race were Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Get it? Zero of them were on the list of the early leaders, as determined by the pundits reading the polls. None of the four likeliest nominees to whom Waldman referred were even relevant at the end, or anywhere near the end.
We didn’t know then what would happen and we don’t know now, not even a list of four who, based on today’s (irrelevant) polls seem to be the leaders. Hug that point.
The same was about half true on the Democratic side in 2016, except that everyone knew that Hillary Clinton was a major contender. Bernie Sanders? Not so much. The punditocracy didn’t take him seriously. He ended up being among the strongest runners-up as any modern nomination contest has seen.
Moral of that story: We know nothing about who will be relevant at the end.
But having demonstrated that point, without stating it, Waldman goes back to a statement that the race for the 2020 Dem nomination comes down to Joe Biden, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. How does he know this? Guess. The polls tell us that those four currently have the most support.
I’m willing to bet that somebody not on that list will be more relevant in the contest than at least one and possibly all four of those who are on that list.
Jeb Bush. Scott Walker. Marco Rubio. Ben Carson. They won zero primaries and/or caucuses in 2016, even though the pre-Iowa polls indicated they were the four to watch.
Apocryphally, at least, it was the sage Yogi Berra who summarized the problem: “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” He also gets credit for “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Whether he said them or not, they are brilliant, and he said them (or not) without reference to the polls.