Is Mayor Pete the man to beat?
At the debate tonight, all eyes will be on Pete Buttigieg, who has soared in recent polls and looks at this point like a Democratic frontrunner in Iowa and beyond. Except that I could have written a very similar paragraph about Joe Biden going into the first debate, Kamala Harris before the second debate, and Elizabeth Warren during the third debate.
Getting to first place in a poll does not count as much as staying there. The fall one year prior to a presidential election is when frontrunners in competitive races are like autumn leaves. They turn brittle and are swept away by strong winds. Consider recent history. In November 2011, one year before the 2012 election, the undisputed leader in the Republican primary was Herman Cain with 30 percent. Remember him?
We all remember Rudy Giuliani. It is hard not to. But who remembers that in November 2007, he was 20 points ahead of John McCain in a Reuters Zogby poll? Speaking of November 2007, 48 percent of Democrats and left leaning independents nationwide supported Senator Hillary Clinton for the party nomination for president. Her closest Democratic primary opponent was little known Senator Barack Obama at 17 percent.
Walking further down the avenue of broken dreams, a year before the 2004 presidential election, a CBS News poll had Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt leading a crowded field at, respectively, 14 percent and 12 percent. Near the back of the pack was John Kerry at 7 percent. Finally, in December 1991, a Harris poll had Jerry Brown thumping an unknown Democratic Governor Bill Clinton at 23 percent to 15 percent.
Those are national numbers. But even the polling of Iowa caucus voters is inexact. In November 2011, Cain was in first place. The winner was Rick Santorum. In November 2007, Mitt Romney was at 28 percent and McCain was at 6 percent in an ABC News poll. The winner was Mike Huckabee. In November 2003, Dean was at 29 percent and Gephardt was at 21 percent in a Pew Research Center poll. The winner was John Kerry.
I asked my colleague, Peter Enns, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, why these polls one year ahead of the presidential election have been so erratic. “There are a few reasons primary polls at this point are not necessarily predictive of the eventual winner. This is particularly true when there are many candidates, like the Democratic primary this year, and the field is still changing with some candidates already dropping out and others still joining the race.”
In other words, this is like forecasting when a hurricane will hit Capitol Hill while it is still forming far out in the Atlantic Ocean. Buttigieg supporters should be excited at the South Bend mayor gaining ground in Iowa. He has run a flawless campaign. His narrative lifts us from the turbidity of Donald Trump. He can build a bridge high above the fetid swamp.
There are plenty of names who once frothed at the tip of pundit tongues, however, until the same pundits had to swallow their words. All first place meant was the candidate became a larger target. More scrutiny, more attacks, and more time on defense instead of offense. The Democratic primary field and process will be like the first three quarters of a close basketball game. It will be entertaining but certainly not predictive.
But feel free to pass on my take. I am the guy who predicts every March that my beloved New York Mets will win the World Series in November.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
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