Biden and Bernie lead early polls, but don't place bets yet

Trump wasn’t even in the race at this point in the 2016 cycle. That should serve as a point of caution for anyone making predictions about 2020.

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By Dante Chinni

It’s Easter Sunday of 2019, but many political watchers are already looking ahead to 2020 and who will win the Democratic nomination to face off against President Donald Trump.

Many of the polls are laying out a pretty clear pecking order nationally and some familiar names are leading the way.

Many of the polls are laying out a pretty clear pecking order nationally and some familiar names are leading the way.

He hasn’t officially jumped into the race yet, but former Vice President Joe Biden leads the Democratic field at 30 percent, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. Behind Biden is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who finished second in the 2016 nominating process, at 22.5 percent.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and California Sen. Kamala Harris are a bit further back at 8.8 percent and 8.5 percent respectively. And behind them sit South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both at 6 percent, with New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker at 3.5 percent.

But before you run off to Vegas and bet the kid’s college fund or make bold predictions, a few words of caution: Beware early polls. The 2020 cycle is just getting started and previous election cycles suggest he or she who leads in spring before an election year does not always end up carrying the flag on Election Day.

Take a look at the last two men to win the Oval Office, starting with Barack Obama.

Take a look at the last two men to win the Oval Office, starting with Barrack Obama.

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Back in April of 2007, Sen. Barack Obama was in second place among Democrats in the Real Clear Politics polling average. And it wasn’t very close; he was nearly 10 percentage points behind frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton. In fact, Obama was closer to third-place candidate John Edwards than he was to Clinton.

That all changed in the months after, as Obama became a political phenomenon and went on to capture the nomination and the presidency.

You can see a similar dynamic in play with Donald Trump in the spring of 2015.

You can see a similar dynamic in play with Donald Trump in the spring of 2015.

Trump didn’t officially join the presidential race until June 16 of that year and didn’t make his first appearance in the Real Clear Politics polling until late-May. He started slowly, first sitting in ninth place, but climbed quickly once he entered the fray officially. He overcame a deep GOP field on his way to the White House.

The fact that Trump wasn’t even in the race at this point in the 2016 cycle should serve as a point of caution for those looking to make predictions about 2020. Things can change, fast.

However, astute observers will also notice those two election cycles are different from 2020 in at least one key aspect. They were both races with no incumbent. By all estimations, the next presidential race will feature Donald Trump seeking a second term. And using that particular scenario, the better comparison for 2020 may actually be 2012, when Obama was up for re-election.

Those 2012 numbers look a little different.

Those 2012 numbers look a little different.

In April of 2011, the leader in the Republican field was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He didn’t have a commanding advantage — it was a big GOP field in that cycle — but he led former Rep. Newt Gingrich by about 7 points. And, of course, months later Romney would go on to win the Republican nomination.

It wasn’t necessarily easy. He was challenged episodically before he won the right to be the Republican standard-bearer. Texas Gov. Rick Perry led in the polls for a while, as did businessman Herman Cain, Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But Romney kept bouncing back to take the lead and eventually took the nomination.

Is there a lesson in that path for the Democrats in 2020? Maybe.

It could be that when there is an open White House, such as in 2008 and 2016, voters are more likely to take a chance on someone new, like Obama and Trump. It is, after all, an opportunity to make a clean break and try something different. But when it is one party trying to unseat another, such as 2012 and, well, 2020, voters may be more likely to go with a known commodity … like current leader Joe Biden.

But, hold on, Biden isn’t the only known commodity on that 2020 list. Remember Bernie Sanders wound up finishing a close second in 2016 to eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.

And remember too, this next campaign will take place in the age of Trump, where social media and small donors have remade the world of politics.

All of which is to say, read the polls if you want, but remember it’s early. A month ago, you probably didn’t know how to spell Buttigieg. You still might not, but he’s climbed up to fifth place in the polls.