"This Election Isn’t Over. It Hasn’t Even Started."

Despite the musings of pundits, spin from the campaigns and the results of respected national polls, the U.S. presidential primaries are not over. In fact, they have not even begun. National polls showing Senator Hillary Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani maintaining (and in Clinton’s case, increasing) leads over their rivals have led some to declare victory for one or both as "likely." In the next three months, however, before the first votes are cast, much can and will happen to transform both the Democratic and Republican contests.

All this is not to suggest that Clinton and Giuliani, the current frontrunners, aren’t in enviable positions. They are. And both are, with varying degrees of success, using their poll numbers to create an aura of inevitability around their campaigns – "inevitability" being the weapon frontrunners use to demoralize their opponents, embolden their supporters, and "cure" the skepticism of the undecided.

But, a word of caution about undue reliance, at this stage, on national polls: Four years ago this month, John Kerry languished in fourth place in the national polls. The same was true for Bill Clinton in 1991. National polls, at this early date, are not reliable predictors of the outcome of the race for three reasons:

  • Nationally, most Americans still aren’t paying attention to this election. Therefore, despite what respondents say now, most have not yet firmly decided for whom they’ll ultimately cast their vote. In fact, in the same polls cited by the pundits, almost 75% of voters also say their vote may likely change by election day.
  • Results in the early states have the ability to catapult a candidate, dramatically changing the national polls. Just remember how strong Howard Dean’s campaign seemed in late 2003, and how John Kerry’s win in Iowa boosted the Massachusetts Senator into the national lead in early 2004. And recall how, despite George W. Bush’s large national lead in the polls in 2000 and his enormous financial advantage, John McCain’s surprising win in New Hampshire resulted in a huge influx of cash and a boost in national media attention that brought him to the verge of defeating Bush.
  • The unexpected can always occur, creating havoc in a campaign – a negative story, a gaff or an unanswered question can shake the public’s confidence, making a seemingly "inevitable" winner appear vulnerable.

With this in mind, let’s look at how the candidates are progressing in the early states, where the voters are paying close attention and the campaigns are focusing their resources.

In Iowa, on the Democratic side, a tight three-way contest exists between Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, with Bill Richardson beginning to gain ground. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney appears to be holding a lead over Giuliani and Fred Thompson, but with dark horse candidates like Mike Huckabee and given the cash on hand that Ron Paul has, the race is far from settled.

But even with this, two additional caveats must be acknowledged.

First, as in the national polls, three quarters of Iowans polled say their votes can still change. Second, because of the nature of the Iowa caucus process and its traditionally low voter turnout (less than 10%), anything can happen. In the end, in Iowa, what wins elections is a candidate’s field organization and the loyalty of committed caucus goers who, because their numbers are so small, are difficult to poll and, therefore, hard to predict.

Looking at New Hampshire, one sees the same unsettled picture. At present, both Clinton and Romney retain leads, but New Hampshire voters are ornery, and history shows that their opinions are always in flux. While New Hampshirites always say Iowa’s outcome will have no impact on their vote, it always does. An added factor contributing to the difficulty of predicting New Hampshire is that Independents, who are the largest voting group in the state, can decide at the last minute whether to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary. Therefore, we won’t have any clear idea how this primary will go until at least after the media wave from Iowa laps New Hampshire’s shore.

The next state, Michigan, is now only a "beauty contest" – since that state has forfeited its delegates after moving its primary in violation of party rules. Nevertheless, its results may still be important and have influence on the states that follow, by either reinforcing the strength of the current frontrunner, or moving a new face into the public eye. And then comes South Carolina, where Fred Thompson has shown strength, and different polls show Clinton in the lead but with Obama and Edwards not far behind. South Carolina voters, too, will be influenced by the national media wave created by the earlier contests.

In other words, this election is in flux. A lot will happen between now and January, and even more will occur in January to make this race interesting.

My brother, John Zogby, who is the pollster in the family, and a historian of Presidential politics, as well, is fond of responding to questioners who ask "Who will win?" by saying, "If the election were held today (the frontrunner) will win." Then he pauses and adds, "But the election isn’t today."

I listen to John. It’s not over yet. In fact, it hasn’t even really started.