Is Hillary Clinton's Lead in Polls for Real?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Okay, invisible primary watchers: what about those polls?

Last week's Washington Post poll gave Hillary Clinton a 60-point lead over Vice President Joe Biden, her nearest rival for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton isn't just leading in early polling; she's dominating to an extent that only incumbents have achieved in the modern era. That's remarkable, especially since one can assume that any name recognition advantage over the sitting vice president is small at best. Harry Enten documented in November just how unprecedented her polling lead has been; yet if the Post poll is accurate, she's actually been gaining ground since then.

I do think these polls are important. But they're important because of how they affect the contest now, not for what they predict about the future in Iowa, New Hampshire or the other primaries and caucuses. I'm skeptical that they have much predictive value about rank-and-file voters' behavior two years down the road.

As Enten wrote, however, candidates with big early polling leads tend to win. That's probably less about the unmediated will of the voters than about the reaction of voters to various cues, mainly from high-visibility party leaders and the media (or, in the case of the party-aligned media, both). If that's the case, then what Clinton's polling suggests is that Democratic voters are hearing lots of consistent signals from those elite sources. If the cues shift (as they did, for example, about Walter Mondale and Gary Hart after the 1984 Iowa caucuses), then voters may shift allegiances rapidly.

That holds at least when the party is relatively united, the differences between candidates are small and most voters would be perfectly happy with any of the leading contenders, provided they're within the party mainstream.

So I don't think that Clinton's huge polling lead right now translates directly into an easy nomination.

But indirectly? Quite possibly. Clinton's lead makes it easier for uncommitted party actors to sign on to her campaign, and a whole lot harder for them to sign up with someone else. It makes it easier for her to wait before formally announcing her campaign (or even admitting that she's running), and harder for other candidates to access party resources, including money, staff and endorsements. After all, no one wants to back a loser -- and few want to be on the wrong side of a candidate who appears headed for the Oval Office.

All of which means that Clinton's strong polling numbers may become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Granted, some of the support measured in these early polls may be derived from dedicated backers fully committed to Clinton's candidacy. But it's unlikely that many voters fit that definition. After all, 2016 is a long time from now. To casual voters, it seems preposterous for anyone to be thinking about it yet. Given that, it's probably smart to discount their answers when they happen to get a call from a pollster.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net