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 CarterNew Hampshire only exacerbates Democratic Party agita Doctors group breaks from health care industry with support for 'Medicare for All' This will be a wild weekend in New Hampshire 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 KerryMellman: Primary elections aren't general elections Consensus forming for ambitious climate goal: Net zero pollution New Hampshire primary turnout is a boost to Democrats 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 ObamaPro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Meghan McCain rips Blagojevich pardon: He is 'like the swampiest swamp creature in the world' Ex-Obama aides say Bloomberg-Obama relationship more 'complicated' than his ads portray 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 McCainAdvice for fellow Democrats: Don't count out Biden, don't fear a brokered convention McSally ties Democratic rival Kelly to Sanders in new ad Eleventh Democratic presidential debate to be held in Phoenix 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 SandersBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Biden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say MORE (I-Vt.) in a slight lead with 20 percent, to 17 percent for Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll 2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day Sanders takes lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll MORE (D-Mass.), 16 percent for former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll 2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day What to watch in the debate tonight MORE, and 15 percent for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Biden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say 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.