It’s late fall, three years out from an up-for-grabs presidential election. And the big news is that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is edging out Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a 2008 presidential matchup. Clinton is even crushing her Democratic opposition, with 41 percent support compared with 17 percent for Sen. John Kerry and 14 percent for former Sen. John Edwards.
Which is great news for Hillary! Except that, according to the Marist poll, the former first lady is still down by 7 percentage points to the Republican front-runner, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Of course, none of these people became president. Giuliani’s campaign completely imploded (RIP the Florida Gambit). Rice never ran. And the eventual winner of the 2008 Democratic primary and the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama, wasn’t even being floated in the polls.
All of this is to say, please just tune out the early 2016 prognosticating. Sure, it’s very exciting to see a new NBC poll out today that has Clinton leading New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, 44 percent to 35 percent. But we’re three years out. Clinton was inevitable in the fall of 2005, too.
Then, as now, she had a commanding lead among the Democratic field. Take a look at this polling from Gallup in August 2005:
Yeah, it’s arguable that the current Democratic field is weaker than it was in 2005 (sorry, Martin O’Malley). And, as Dave Wiegel points out at Slate, Clinton had a much steeper hill (see: Iraq) in 2008, and is viewed much more favorably now than she was then. But the polling three years out from 2008 still didn’t even feature the person who would present Clinton with the biggest challenge. And it also of course featured more than a few people who didn’t even wind up running.
The Rudy Giuliani fever wasn’t just a fleeting one-off in 2005. A December, 2005 poll from CNN/USA Today/Gallup projected Clinton and Giuliani as the favorites for their party nominations in 2008. Clinton was up nearly 30 percent on her closest rivals (Kerry and Edwards), and only 13 percent of Democrats said they’d support a nonlisted candidate (terrible news for Barack Obama). Giuliani, meanwhile, was up 8 percent on the eventual nominee, John McCain. Again, Condoleezza Rice sneaked into the leading GOP pack, with 18 percent support.
The problem isn’t just goofs in polling or tight swings in political opinion. It’s that three years is a lot of time. This isn’t new. In 2005, Hotline put together polling averages for presidential elections three years out, from January to August of those years. Here’s what they found for the 2004 Democratic primary (so, polls from 2001):
41% Al Gore
19% Hillary Clinton
9% Joe Lieberman
8% Bill Bradley
7% Dick Gephardt
4% John Kerry
2% John Edwards
2% Bob Kerrey
Gore, Clinton, and Bradley didn’t run that year. The three actual front-runners, Howard Dean, Kerry, and Edwards, barely made a blip in the polling.
Early polling is muddled with candidates who don’t even run. As Hotline called them in 2005, these early polls are “Choose Your Own Adventure for politicos.” And as Mark Blumenthal wrote back then, the polls also fail in taking in a sample of the electorate which has an incredibly limited influence on who actually gets nominated for president by the political parties.
So, why do we care about what 2013 polls say about the 2016 presidential race? It’s not like there’s much else going on in the world.