Mitt Romney won the 2012 Iowa caucuses, though Representative Michele Bachmann was the early favorite in the polls. 

Ignore Those Polls! (Iowa Caucuses Edition)

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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CNN has pollnumberson how presidential candidates are doing in Iowa just 16 or 17 months before the Democrats and Republicans head to the caucuses.

Ignore those polls!

Hey, I know that everyone would really like some kind of hint about what’s happening in an apparently structureless Republican nomination contest. And then there’s the question of whether the Democratic nomination is already over.

It would be great if early Iowa (and New Hampshire, and South Carolina) polling could shine a little light.

But it can’t.

Look: we've been through this before, folks. We know that Rick Santorum was a tiny blip in Iowa during almost all of 2011, only to rise to a narrow win in early January 2012. We know that polling in 2010 would have asked about Tim Pawlenty and perhaps Haley Barbour and John Thune and others who never made it to the caucuses. We know that even though the campaigns are underway, very few ordinary voters are paying attention. I don’t think anyone needs political science to tell them those things.

Yet political science can add a few things. One is that all multicandidate primaries tend to be volatile because there really is very little to differentiate the candidates. Another is that for all the talk of living-room candidate connections in the small early primary states, elite party opinion leaders are quite important in directing voter preferences. That doesn’t necessarily mean so-called establishment people; it means any high-profile party-aligned people who have the ear of voters, whether that’s Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh or leaders of important party factions.

And another, perhaps the most important one, is that party actors -- the people who by virtue of their position or simply by self-selection play the most active role in party affairs -- tend to compete for and coordinate their candidate selections during the current “invisible primary” period, with the result that the winner or winners of that process receive important resources that normally translate into primary and caucus performance, even if there are only hints of that kind of attention from among regular voters so far.

All of which means that September 2014 Iowa poll numbers don’t mean squat. At best, they reflect what we already know (Democrats like Hillary Clinton!). But they don’t have any value added.

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

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Jonathan Bernstein at

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Max Berley at