To judge by numbers alone, Democrats are on the glide path to the White House.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton beats the leading Republican candidates in most recent polls. Democratic candidates are raising more campaign cash than are their GOP counterparts, from far more donors. According to polls, Democratic voters are more interested in and rosier about the campaign season than are Republicans.
But what those figures mean more than a year from Election Day is far from clear. A terrorist attack in the US, a Democratic scandal, or the entry into the race of a more unifying GOP candidate could all change the dynamics of a race that is clearly tilting Democratic but is still a long way from the finish line, analysts say.
"I'm sure Republicans would rather have the Democratic numbers right now," says James Campbell, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo who has studied the link between early poll numbers and election results. "But these poll numbers really don't tell us a lot about what voters will be thinking and doing a year from now."
From 1948 to 2004, he noted, the presidential candidate ahead in polls just five months before Election Day won only 53 percent of the time. "Polls even as late as the June before an election really don't mean much," he said. "And we are so far away from that."
Ahead in money and online interest
There is no arguing that Democrats have momentum. President Bush's job approval ratings have dipped below 30 percent. The Democratic presidential candidates have raised nearly $179 million this year, compared with the Republicans' $115 million, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Democratic voters are paying more attention to the race than Republicans and are more than twice as likely to feel good about it, according to polls by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
If the Internet is any measure of grass-roots enthusiasm for candidates, at least among young people, the leading Democrats as a group are the hands-down favorites.
The YouTube pages of Senator Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards have together drawn some 7.1 million views, versus 3 million for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and the still-undeclared former Sen. Fred Thompson, according to figures compiled by the website techpresident.com. (To be fair, the candidate with the largest YouTube following is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the renegade Republican with single-digit poll numbers but a loyal Web constituency.)
Further, none of the leading Republican candidates has anything as elaborate as a Camp Obama, two days of boot-camp-like training for campaign volunteers.
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, suggests that the party's early edge reflects broad disenchantment with the war in Iraq and a string of Republican political scandals.
"People want a message based on hope, and they want to heal the country, and Republicans have divided the daylights out of us for 25 years and ... people are sick of it," he said in a phone interview.
But Jeff Bell, a GOP strategist, says the higher levels of engagement among Democratic voters mean one thing. "They're the out party and they smell blood," he says. "That's the short answer."
Republicans are struggling with an unpopular president and an unpopular war, he says, but a major shift in the war on terror – good or bad – could turn the tides. "It could be something concerning Iran, it could be a major act of terrorism," he says. "Republicans need something to shake up the playing field and the evaluation voters have of what this election is about."
Clinton echoed that view at a New Hampshire campaign stop Thursday. "If certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again," she said.
The most ominous note for the GOP at this early stage is the Democrats' fundraising lead, says David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "That's clearly a bad sign for Republicans," he says. "They're used to always being in the lead in fundraising, even in years when things aren't so great."
Another spoiler for Republicans, he says, is displeasure with the current field of candidates.
"Each of the top GOP candidates has some weakness or flaw that puts off some Republican voters, whereas on the Democratic side either the flaws aren't as obvious or aren't as off-putting to Democratic voters," says Dr. Kimball.
According to the Pew study, 39 percent of Democratic voters polled in July said they had given a "lot of thought" to the candidates, compared with 30 percent of Republican voters who did so.
"Republican voters are not yet as fully focused as Democrats on the presidential field," the study's authors wrote, "perhaps reflecting the general malaise within the GOP since the 2006 congressional election and President Bush's continuing low support."
Too early to gauge voter interest
But early levels of voter interest are not a particularly good harbinger of election results, says Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center. The numbers typically converge nearer Election Day, he says, and they do not account for late-deciding independents, who have been critical in recent elections.
Mr. Dean says he's happy with the Democrats' early momentum, but not complacent. He was the Democratic front-runner for president in early 2004, with more money and higher poll numbers than his rivals for the nomination, before his campaign suddenly imploded. "I don't make much of early polls," he said in the interview. "The Democratic Party is very much united and we want to move forward, but we have a long way to go."