It’s December 1, which means we’re now just 64 days until the Iowa Democratic caucuses on February 3, 2020. Right now, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, Joe Biden leads the field, with 27.0%, followed by Bernie Sanders (18.3%), Elizabeth Warren (15.8%), Pete Buttigieg (11.0%), Kamala Harris (3.8%), Andrew Yang (3.3%), Michael Bloomberg (2.5%) and Amy Klobuchar (2.2%). So does that mean that this is likely to be the ultimate order of finish? Not if you look at the 2004 and 2008 Democratic presidential primaries – or earlier years (e.g., 1988, 1992) – that’s for sure.
For instance, see below for polling around this time in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. Note that the eventual Democratic nominee for president in 2004, John Kerry, was at just 7%-8% in the polling around this time in 2003, actually down from 14% in late September 2003. As for Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, he was in the low-to-mid single digits. And the odds-on favorite to be the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee at this point in 2003? That would have been Howard Dean, with folks like Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark jockeying for runner-up status to Dean. And…no, obviously that’s not how things ended up working out.
Oh, and remember back at this point in 2007, when Hillary Clinton had a huge lead over Barack Obama? Nope, didn’t work out that way yet again.
How about the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries? Check this out from FiveThirtyEight.com – during the second half of 1987, the leader was Jesse Jackson, followed by Gary Hart and *then* Michael Dukakis, who ended up winning the nomination – and losing the general election, unfortunately, to George HW Bush.
Also from FiveThirtyEight.com, check out 1992, with Mario Cuomo holding a strong lead in the second half of 1991, followed by Jerry Brown and Doug Wilder and…then, finally, Bill Clinton, who went on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency. So yet again, the polls at this time in 1991 didn’t predict who would eventually win the nomination.
The polling for the 1976 Democratic presidential primary wasn’t predictive either, with George Wallace (!), Scoop Jackson, Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie, George McGovern, Birch Bayh, etc. all leading the peanut-farming Governor of Georgia, and future president, Jimmy Carter.
By the way, it’s interesting that Republican presidential polling seems much more predictive than Democratic polling (recall the saying, “Republicans fall in line; Democrats fall in love”). Per FiveThirtyEight.com: in the second half of 1975, Gerald Ford led the race for (and eventually won) the nomination over Ronald Reagan; in the second half of 1979, Ronald Reagan led (and went on to win) the race for the 1980 GOP nomination over Howard Baker and John Connally; in the second half of 1987, George HW Bush led (and went on to win) the nomination for the 1988 GOP nomination over Bob Dole and Jack Kemp; in the second half of 1995, Bob Dole led (and went on to win) the nomination for the 1996 GOP nomination over Phil Gramm and Colin Powell. Oh, and Trump led at this point in 2015…and went on to win, unfortunately.
P.S. Two exceptions to this rule were in 2007 and 2011, with Rudy Guiliani leading at this point in 2007 (and eventual nominee John McCain well behind); with Newt Gingrich leading Mitt Romney at this point in 2011.