Mellman: Democrats — Buckle up for a wild ride

Mellman: Democrats — Buckle up for a wild ride
© Greg Nash

For a year, everyone has been repeating a familiar refrain: “It’s too early” to know how the contest for the Democratic nomination will shape up, let alone shake out.

Well, Democrats start voting in three weeks, so it’s a little late to say it’s early, but this race appears tight as a tick, and lots can still happen.

For example, keep in mind that what occurs in the earlier contests will profoundly influence the polls, and the results, in later states.

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History is quite clear about this.

In 1976, Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterTexas Democrats roll out first wave of planned digital ads as Election Day nears Chris Matthews ripped for complimenting Trump's 'true presidential behavior' on Ginsburg Warning signs flash for Lindsey Graham in South Carolina MORE garnered just 4 percent of the Democratic primary vote in national polls before placing in Iowa and winning New Hampshire.

Within three days of his Granite State victory, he jumped 12 points to 16 percent in the national polls.

In 1980, George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan by 2 points in Iowa and saw his national poll standing more than double from 14 percent to 32 percent. (Of course, Reagan went on to win a massive New Hampshire victory and secure the nomination.)

John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Warning signs flash for Trump on debates Divided country, divided church TV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month MORE picked up about 20 points nationally from his Iowa win, and another 13 points as a result of his New Hampshire victory in 2004.

Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTwitter investigating automated image previews over apparent algorithmic bias Donald Trump delivers promise for less interventions in foreign policy Rush Limbaugh encourages Senate to skip hearings for Trump's SCOTUS nominee MORE added 16 points on average in the national polls after his 2008 Iowa victory.

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That same year, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden's six best bets in 2016 Trump states Replacing Justice Ginsburg could depend on Arizona's next senator The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy MORE’s national support jumped by over 20 points following his New Hampshire win.

Iowa can even impact New Hampshire. Kerry was 10 points behind Howard Dean in the Granite State until after Kerry’s Iowa victory. Within days, he led Dean by 10 points in the polls and beat him by 12 on Election Day.

What today’s polls say about Nevada and South Carolina, let alone about California, Texas, and Wisconsin, can change in an instant, depending on the results in earlier contests.

So, where do the candidates stand in the earliest states? Those contests are close and remain fluid.

The latest Iowa Poll found the top four candidates separated by just 5 points, in a survey with a 4-point margin of error.

Moreover, voters still express considerable uncertainty about their choices. Eleven percent say they are undecided, almost enough to give any of the top four candidates a clear lead.

A total of 56 percent are either completely undecided or say they could still be persuaded to vote for another candidate.

Adding to the uncertainty, the two latest surveys offer seemingly divergent results.

While the Iowa Poll puts Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJacobin editor: Primarying Schumer would force him to fight Trump's SCOTUS nominee Trump campaign plays up Biden's skills ahead of Cleveland debate: 'He's actually quite good' Young voters backing Biden by 2:1 margin: poll MORE (I-Vt.) in a slight lead with 20 percent, to 17 percent for Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenJudd Gregg: The Kamala threat — the Californiaization of America GOP set to release controversial Biden report Biden's fiscal program: What is the likely market impact? MORE (D-Mass.), 16 percent for former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBipartisan praise pours in after Ginsburg's death Bogeymen of the far left deserve a place in any Biden administration Overnight Defense: Woodward book causes new firestorm | Book says Trump lashed out at generals, told Woodward about secret weapons system | US withdrawing thousands of troops from Iraq MORE, and 15 percent for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJoe Biden looks to expand election battleground into Trump country Trump puts Supreme Court fight at center of Ohio rally Special counsel investigating DeVos for potential Hatch Act violation: report MORE, the Monmouth University Poll presents a different picture with Biden first, at 24 percent, Sanders at 18 percent, Buttigieg at 17 percent and Warren at 15 percent.

The real difference here is Biden, who is in first place, with 24 percent, according to Monmouth, but 9 points lower and in fourth place according to the Iowa Poll.

Even the trendlines in the two polls differ. Monmouth says both Biden and Sanders increased their support since November, while the Iowa Poll indicates Biden is flat, but Sanders has grown. Both indicate fall-off from earlier highs in the Hawkeye State for Buttigieg and Warren.

New Hampshire poll data is similarly inconclusive. Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg each lead in one of the three most recent polls.

RealClearPolitics averages put Sanders and Biden in an exact tie, with Buttigieg in fourth, despite coming in first in one of the three polls. Warren holds third place in the averages.

As voting gets closer, analysts confront conflicting polls, soft and potentially malleable support for the candidates, close averages, and early results that will shift later outcomes.

Before encasing your theory of the race in concrete, remember uncertainty reigns and change will happen.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.