Beware the Ides of March (Polling Before an Election Year)

Happy Ides of March, everyone. I recommend avoiding any forums to which you might be invited by brooding Senators.

Today, let us heed the advice that William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar did not. Let’s beware March 15, specifically how our joyous receptivity to new polling should not distract us from discerning the 2020 Democratic Primary. Over the weekend we were given new polling candy from Iowa, which suggested that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders might turn the Democratic Primary into a two-person race. Indeed, not only do these two candidates tower above the field in Iowa, but they do the same in New Hampshire and across the country.

But it’s early yet. As evidence, let’s examine the polling charted by Wikipedia from the Ides of March four years ago, back when the nascent 2016 Republican Primary also suggested there were a couple clear leaders:


Listed alphabetically, the bookended names — Jeb Bush and Scott Walker — were clearly seen as a top tier. Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson lingered, while Rand Paul seemed feisty.

The Real Clear Politics average as of March 15, 2015 graphed Wikipedia’s findings:


It looked like there was a clear top two (Walker and Bush), and then the same three names rounded out the top five (Huckabee, Carson, Paul).

You know what those names had in common? All five were non-factors come primary season. Walker dropped out before a single vote was cast, Bush’s low energy never even earned him a top three finish before he dropped out after three contests, Carson slept his way to a fourth place Iowa finish and little else, while Huckabee and Paul dropped out after Iowa. Meanwhile:

  • The eventual nominee, Donald F. Trump, wasn’t even included in polling.
  • The Iowa Caucus winner and runner up overall, Ted Cruz, earned support from about 1 in 20 Republicans.
  • The New Hampshire Primary runner up and the candidate with the third most votes in the overall primary, John Kasich, had a March 15 RCP polling average so low that his name was covered up by “March 15.”

The lesson: if you think Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders are favorites for the nomination, you better have better reasons than polling. While it is true that a primary season has never been this far along at this point on the calendar, there are still ten volatile months before Iowa and New Hampshire.

That being said, there are some lessons that can be taken away from polling this far out, but that’s for another time. For now, this particular soothsayer bids you beware the Ides of March.


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