Early Returns

What's in a Name? Let's Check the Latest Poll

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Big ones.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Oh, my: There's a New Hampshire poll out. As in the 2020 New Hampshire primary. Yes, it's way too early for the poll to mean much. Indeed, in previous cycles I would have just said Ignore Those Polls! and moved on. 

But this time around, I have to point out that I was dead wrong about the Republican nomination in 2016, perhaps in part because I dismissed early -- albeit not this early -- polls showing Donald Trump on top. Now, I don't think that Trump's flukish nomination demonstrated that everything political scientists believed about presidential nominations was wrong. But I do think a little more caution is in order. 

Generally, the problem with early polling is that voters -- most of whom won't really engage in nomination politics until very close to the election -- simply don't have strongly held opinions about most politicians. So early polling tends to be little more than an exercise in name recognition. That's no doubt why on the Democratic side Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden are the leaders in this survey. 

Does that tell us anything useful? Well, sure. For one thing, while it's true that advantages in name recognition will dissipate by Election Day as the other candidates run their campaigns, it's also true that initial name recognition is, in fact, a resource some candidates have and some don't. From the point of view of the candidates, it's a resource like any other -- endorsements, campaign money, electioneering skills, and on and on. Again, it's hardly the most valuable, but it is something. 

And from the point of view of party actors, name recognition is one of the many things they may take into account when assessing the candidates. In my view, it's one that should receive zero weight: Whatever it's worth in the primaries and caucuses, it's certain that after the convention any nominee will be equally well-known. But the issue isn't what I'd do; it's what actual real-world party actors value, and it's certainly possible some of them do believe that a candidate already known to the public before the campaign has some advantages. 

In other words, party actors can value anything they want when choosing which candidate to support, and analysis that ignores what they value if it appears to be foolish would not be very good analysis. 

Speaking of what party actors value: It's hardly good news for Sanders that he reached only 31 percent in the new poll, after winning 60 percent of the Granite State vote in the 2016 primary. Sure, some of that had to do with the two-candidate field then compared to the 12 potential candidates tested here. But that's just another way of saying that we shouldn't think of Sanders as commanding solid support anywhere close to his 2016 primary and caucus results. And polls such as this one tend to convince party actors that the strong vote Sanders received during the 2016 process was more a function of the small candidate field rather than an indication of a surge of solid Bernie people.

1. Julia Azari on how major events may, or may not, change public policy. 

2. John Patty at Mischiefs of Faction on the missing Republican agenda. One might even call it post-policy. 

3. Christopher Baylor at the Monkey Cage on the difficulties of crossing party lines

4. Dan Drezner's campaign against Rex Tillerson continues. 

5. And James Wallner argues that a procedural path is available for senators who want to offer amendments, despite tactics by majority leaders over time to prevent many amendments. 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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