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Based on Presidential Primaries Past, the Democratic Race is Still Wide Open


Former Democratic Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's...energetic...reaction to his Iowa Caucus loss in 2004, which came just two weeks before Facebook was created, has been referred to as the "first political meme."

Given events in Washington over the last several days, you might be expecting a deep dive into the impeachment process. While we spent some time walking through the intricacies and history of the process in April, there will no doubt be much more to say on the issue in the weeks ahead as events transpire at the Capitol. Today, though, we take a break from Washington for a visit to the campaign trail.


According to a brand new CNN/Des Moines Register poll, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has overtaken former Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential frontrunner in Iowa. This survey is important, of course, because Iowa holds the first-in-the-nation presidential primary voting contest. Momentum really starts to build after this race has been called.


And while it may feel like there are still eons between today and the November 2020 elections, the Iowa Caucus is just four months away.


Newspaper and television commentators said the latest poll is evidence of a Warren surge. But how reliable are polls at this point in the primary contest, particularly when we look at crowded presidential primary fields of the recent past?


Given the political volatility we have seen over the last several years, it should come as no surprise to learn that polls at this point – even when isolated to the views of Iowa voters – are not conclusive. Hawkeye state surveys in the last quarter of 2015 generally had Donald Trump in the lead. But if one looks back to the two most recent presidential contests where an incumbent was defending the White House, the story is different. At this point in the race, voters really had no idea who the nominee would be.


In 2004, when an increasingly unpopular President George W. Bush was running for reelection, nine Democrats entered their party’s primary. That year it was another Massachusetts Democrat – Sen. John Kerry – who eventually won the Democratic contest (but went on to lose in the general election to President Bush).


Though he never was considered a dark-horse in the race (former Congresswoman Carol Moseley Brown took that title), Sen. Kerry actually did not lead most Iowa polls until the middle of January 2004 … literally days before the January 19, 2004 caucus.


Throughout the summer of 2003 and into late September – the same point in that presidential election cycle that we are at today – former Democratic House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt from Missouri was leading the polls coming out of Iowa.


Things began to change in early October, but even then it was not Kerry who started to surge. It was former Democratic Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Dean was first in the hearts and minds of Iowa voters through the first week of January when Kerry finally surged. (Dean, as readers might remember, did not take this news well, melting down on the campaign stage on Caucus night after coming in third after Kerry and Sen. John Edwards from North Carolina.)


Kerry went on to win the New Hampshire primary and secured the nomination by mid-March 2004. The early favorites didn’t even make the number two slot on the ticket. Kerry picked Edwards as his running mate.


Eight years later, the GOP primary field vying to challenge incumbent President Barack Obama in 2012 was smaller by one. Eight Republicans threw their hats into the ring, and it was a bumpy ride right up until Caucus night.


With just a few candidates in the field in the summer of 2011, the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, led in early Iowa polls. As more candidates entered the race, however, it became clear that Republicans would consider anyone but Romney before giving him the crown. By the middle of August, the former U.S. Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann from Minnesota (remember her?) was leading Romney, and everyone else, in Iowa.


Rep. Bachmann quickly faded to be replaced by former Godfather’s Pizza Chairman and CEO Herman Cain (remember him?). Cain led Romney in the polls until the middle of November, but even when the winds shifted away from Cain, they didn’t go in Romney’s direction. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich surged in late November through the middle of December, when Romney finally recaptured the spot as Iowa’s frontrunner. (Gingrich, incidentally, is now the husband to the U.S. Ambassador to Vatican City.)


Even then, Romney led by only a handful of points and former U.S. Congressman Ron Paul (Texas) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Penn.) were ahead in a couple of the polls. Sen. Santorum actually was ahead by 0.1 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average – the poll of polls – going into the January 3, 2012 caucus.


That final average was spot on. Though Romney initially was declared the winner, Sen. Santorum beat Romney in the Iowa caucuses by 0.1 percentage points. (Remember that when voting next year: in Iowa in 2012, every vote mattered on Caucus day.)


Romney won the New Hampshire primary seven days later, but lost the South Carolina contest on Jan. 21 and the Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri contests on Feb. 7 before things turned around for good. He secured the GOP nomination in April.


The GOP primary race four years later was decided even later, in May, but the Iowa polls were much more consistent in this race.


In 2016, 17 Republicans battled for the nomination. Donald Trump was a relative late-comer, entering the race on June 18, 2015.


The news and data analysis website FiveThirtyEight profiled each GOP candidate when he or she entered the race, opining on the likelihood that individual eventually would be crowned nominee. In April 2015, the site called Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida the contest’s “first real contender.”


But here is how FiveThirtyEight concluded its assessment of Donald Trump’s chances: “Trump has a better chance of cameoing in another ‘Home Alone’ movie with Macaulay Culkin — or playing in the NBA Finals — than winning the Republican nomination.”

Harsh. And, of course, wrong.


Iowans reacted very differently. After bouncing from candidate to candidate in the crowded 2004 and 2012 fields, Hawkeye State Republicans supported Donald Trump almost immediately and, for the most part, stood by his side until the caucus was held on February 1, 2016.


Then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had been leading the Iowa polls before Trump announced his candidacy and that continued for a few weeks after the June 18 announcement. By late August, however, Trump was leading polls by anywhere from five to 15 points. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas surged somewhat in December, but after that Trump led in the polls all the way to Caucus day …


When Cruz won.


Trump quickly regained his footing, however, winning the next four contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Alabama and, as noted above, securing the nomination in May.


The CNN/Des Moines Register survey is not the only one that has Sen. Warren leading the Democratic primary race. An Iowa University poll has her up by eight points over Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont.


Will that lead last? It’s impossible to say. But it’s a safe bet that this is perhaps the one and only time that Sen. Warren is hoping to be a little bit like President Trump.

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