Bernie Sanders leads Clinton in Iowa and N.H.: Why it may not matter

Is Bernie Sanders another Howard Dean? Why early polling results may not be good indicators of presidential election results. 

(AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., waves as he marches with supporters in the Labor Day parade Monday, Sept. 7, 2015, in Milford, N.H.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is surging.

He's now leading rival Hillary Clinton in Iowa, 41 percent to 40 percent, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.

He's also leading her in New Hampshire, 41 percent to 32 percent, according to an NBC News/Marist poll.

And he's earning plenty of praise. "He's doing a hell of a job," Vice President Joe Biden said of Senator Sanders. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett also had high praise for the socialist Democratic contender, about whom he said, "We all have lessons to learn from him." (However, he said he was still backing Mrs. Clinton.)

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who followed Sanders down the West Coast on the campaign trail, called the large crowds and enthusiasm for the liberal icon "amazing."

Does Sanders' early success in the polls tell us anything about who will be the eventual Democratic nominee?

As Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told US News, "Only a fool would absolutely trust the lineup projected by early polling."

In other words, as excited as the liberal wing of the Democratic party is about Sanders – and as concerned as many Democrats are about Clinton – early wins at the polls offer little or no indication of future success.

Consider recent history: Around this time in the last election cycle, in 2011, tea party champion Minn. Rep. Michele Bachmann handily won the Iowa straw poll. Eventual nominee Mitt Romney took seventh place.

Former pizza executive and Republican contender Herman Cain also was surging around this time in 2011, scoring a surprise upset victory in the Florida straw poll in Sept. 2011.

In 2004, another left-wing Vermont Democrat – former Gov. Howard Dean – was an early frontrunner. As late as January 2004, he was leading the national polls by a wide margin – 24 percent to Sen. John Kerry's 7 percent in a January 2004 poll. Mr. Dean easily won the first straw poll of the 2004 presidential campaign, and his populist pitch landed him on national magazine covers across the country.

Yet, none of these early risers – Ms. Bachmann, Mr. Cain, or Dean – won their party's nomination, or even came close.

Which is why, Mr. Sabato says, "It’s obvious what the early polls cannot do: Predict the party presidential nominees or the November winner."

History is brimming with more examples: Bill Clinton was weak in early polls. Same with Ronald Reagan, whose January 1979 poll ratings were 38 percent favorable/39 percent unfavorable. In both cases, they went on to capture the nomination and the presidency.

Still, while early polls may not predict the eventual nominee, they aren't completely useless.

Donors open – or close – their wallets based on how candidates perform in early polls. And as Donald Trump's surprise surge has shown, they also dictate media coverage, with strong contenders earning the lion's share of attention.

That, Julia Azari, assistant professor of political science at Marquette University, told US News, is what we should be paying attention to instead of polls.

Money and party leader endorsements "can tell us about which candidates have serious support from others within the party and from the interest groups that align with the two parties," she said.

Again, history offers precedent.

Everyone thought Hillary Clinton was the inevitable nominee in 2008. Until her devastating loss in the Iowa caucuses to a senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, whose fund-raising capacity skyrocketed from there. The rest, as they say, is history.

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