Peter D. Hart, the respected Democratic pollster who has perfected his trade through his work in the past 15 presidential campaigns, candidly warns against the predictive value of polls taken this far ahead of any presidential election. At this stage, so long before voters actually vote, according to Hart, poll numbers are "written in wet sand at the ocean's edge."
History backs Hart up. In 2003, the year before the re-election race of the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush, leading in the polls for the opposition party's nomination was then-Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who skipped the Iowa caucuses to concentrate on the New Hampshire primary, in which he finished a distant fifth, and then, after not having won a single delegate in any of the first eight contests, withdrew.
There is an old — and true — axiom that holds that in politics, a week is a lifetime and a month can be an eternity. For evidence, recall 1991 and 1992. When the coalition he forged drove the invading Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait — in the short, decisive and successful Gulf War — President George H.W. Bush won the first (and only) clear-cut American military victory since World War II. In a Gallup Poll taken the same amount of time before Bush's next Election Day as this week is ahead of 2020 voting, Bush's 89 percent approval rating was an all-time high for any president.
Because perception becomes reality in American politics and because in 1991 Bush looked, according to all the polls, absolutely unbeatable, a parade of prominent Democrats announced they would not in 1992 seek the Oval Office, which many of them had openly lusted after. Democrats who looked at the daunting numbers and decided to take a pass on running against Bush in 1992 included the leader among Democrats in the polls, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo; the most recent vice presidential nominee, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas; Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, who had run four years earlier; House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, who had won the 1988 Iowa caucuses before running out of money; and the senator from New Jersey who was a former Rhodes scholar and former pro basketball star whom people had been talking about as a future president since he was a Princeton undergrad, Bill Bradley.
Only a half-dozen brave and/or foolish Democrats dared to run against the obviously unbeatable President Bush in 1992. Running fourth among Democrats, with an underwhelming 6 percent support in the early polls — behind former California Gov. Jerry Brown, Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa — was the bright and personable governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. On July 16, 1992, when Clinton accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, the formerly unbeatable President George Bush stood at just 29 percent approval in the Gallup Poll. Early numbers are indeed written in wet sand at the ocean's edge.
The 2020 election is the mirror image of 1992. Because President Donald Trump lost the 2016 popular vote by nearly 3 million votes to Hillary Clinton and because Trump has never had a single day of his presidency when American voters have rated him positively on either his personal qualities or his job performance, many Democrats know he is eminently beatable. It seems that every ambitious Democrat who is 35 or older and not under indictment or detox is feeling a popular draft to launch his or her own presidential campaign. Perceptions — often ephemeral and illusory — once again become a form of reality. History humbles us to admit that we really do have no idea who will be the presidential nominees, let alone the winner, in 2020.