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Jonathan Bernstein

The Economist has a nice new page on the Democratic presidential nomination fight. It’s a great resource, with a polling average and details from their own polls (with YouGov).

One feature that has attracted a lot of attention is a graphic showing who supporters of each candidate are also considering. For example, Joe Biden voters seem also interested mostly in Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, followed by Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker.

A word of caution is in order.

Most Democratic primary election voters are not anywhere close to fully engaged in the contest. Sure, they know who Biden and Sanders are, and they know Warren and Harris by name at least, and maybe Buttigieg and one or two of the others, but it’s highly unlikely that very many of those voters have well-developed opinions about more than three or four candidates. At best. For most voters, most of the candidates are a blur. And why not? By the time Super Tuesday comes around in early March, most of the candidates will be long gone. Even if they were willing to do the work, why spend the time studying and ranking the candidates now?

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By the time of each state primary or caucuses, voters in that state will have been exposed to a full campaign, and most of them will pay attention. If it turns out to be, say, a Warren versus Biden contest by March 1, then voters will learn a lot about both of them, especially in the last couple of weeks when they’re really paying attention. What they think now of even Biden and Sanders could change dramatically; if the surviving candidate is someone who is currently obscure such as Booker or Amy Klobuchar, we can be certain that whatever superficial first impression voters have now will be replaced.

Of course, the most likely thing for those candidates who are at 1% or so now — and who only small minorities report even considering supporting — is that they will follow Eric Swalwell, John Hickenlooper and now Jay Inslee straight to the exits. That’s almost certainly going to be true for the candidates who don’t qualify for the September and October debates, and even without them actually giving up, it’s likely the field will have been effectively winnowed quite a bit.

But it’s still quite likely that at least one of the current also-rans will eventually have a surge into contention, and it’s quite possible that Booker, Klubuchar, Beto O’Rourke or Julian Castro could build on a surge if it happens. And should that be the case, we may wind up very surprised by where voters go, because we may be surprised by what any emerging candidate looks like to voters at that point — and therefore which voters they particularly appeal to.

It’s been a very long time since a true dark horse — a candidate who really came out of nowhere — won a presidential nomination. But we’ve had a couple of recent winners (John McCain in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004) who looked dead in the water for long periods of the year before the election. And we’ve had other candidates (Rick Santorum in 2012 and Gary Hart way back in 1984) who showed almost no signs of life until right before the Iowa caucuses but then went on to become serious challengers to the eventual winner. I see a lot of pundits out there who want to reach conclusions about at least the structure of this cycle’s nomination struggle, if not proclaim a winner. I’m not averse to doing that when there’s strong evidence, as there was for Hillary Clinton in 2015. But there’s nothing close to that this time, and that means, to me, that we still don’t really have a good idea of where any of this is headed.

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Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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