More than 1,000 days remain until voters elect the 45th President of the United States, but you’d never know it by turning on the news.
This week, Chris Christie took the oath of office to start his second term as governor of New Jersey, as a bipartisan probe investigates allegations about a shutdown of the George Washington Bridge and claims by the mayor of Hoboken that Sandy aid funds were tied to a development project. His status as a 2016 frontrunner has already made him a top target of the left and a headline maker, for better or worse. While raising money for Florida Governor Rick Scott down in the Sunshine State this past weekend, Christie’s controversy and star-status led DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz to shadow him around, harping on allegations in a controversy happening in a state 2,000 miles away.
Meanwhile, no news story these days is without a potential hook to Hillary Clinton, whether the release of a Benghazi report or a discussion of First Ladies’ 50th Birthdays. Even her unofficial campaign apparatus is getting the star treatment, and she’s evidently already test-driving potential messages for her presidential bid.
Democrats have taken square aim at Christie, and Hillary is of course the focus of a great number of Republican efforts that hope to stop her ascent to the White House. As a result, every new poll that comes out about a Christie vs. Hillary 2016 hypothetical showdown stirs the pot and presumes to offer a glimpse into our political future.
Tuesday, Quinnipiac released a new national poll showing Christie falling out of the lead in the GOP primary, dipping from 17 percent to 12 percent among Republican voters since mid-December. (At the same time, the number who say they are undecided increased five points to 22 percent.)
Hillary Clinton, firmly atop the Democratic field, defeats Christie by eight points in a hypothetical matchup, a shift from Christie’s slim advantage from December. She holds a larger margin against other Republican contenders like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, but this is consistent with the earlier polls, suggesting that the only real change in the 2016 race in the last month has been Chris Christie’s standing.
So Christie is toast? Not so fast.
Here’s a little context. Let’s take a journey back to the early days of 2006. At this stage in the game, Clinton held a commanding lead over her Democratic opponents, with CNN/USA Today’s polling at the time showing her with 39 percent of the Democratic primary vote. She was trailed distantly by John Kerry at 15 percent, Al Gore at 13 percent, and John Edwards at 12 percent. Mark Warner and Joe Biden each garnered 5 percent. Of those, of course, only two would actually go on to challenge Hillary for the nomination, with one winding up a laughingstock and the other winding up as vice president.
Barack Obama was not even an option. In fact, CNN’s polling did not add him to their list of choices for president until October of that year, after his announcement that he would be exploring a bid (PDF).
Or let’s consider the complete insanity of the polling of the 2012 Republican field, where everybody (besides, I suppose, Jon Huntsman) got their moment at the front of the pack, even as the primaries themselves were unfolding. While Mitt Romney was very slightly ahead in early 2010, roughly a thousand days out from Election Day, polls at that point still included many names of those who wouldn’t ultimately run, and missed many names of those who would. (PDF)
All of which is to say that it is entirely possible that the next president is not even being mentioned in the current polls. Looking back on overly early polling in the last two presidential cycles is a comedic exercise, full of ultimately useless data about men and women who would never dive into the race (and therefore equally useless data about the prospects of the men and women who would).
Getting a good laugh from the comedy of old polls isn’t a knock against the pollsters themselves; they were doing the best research they could with the names they figured might run at the time. But it is illuminating, and means that any conclusions about a particular candidate’s presidential fortunes ought to be taken with an enormous grain of salt.
Clinton is formidable but not inevitable. Christie is still relatively unknown to a large swath of the electorate and his fortunes could break any number of ways. And again, our next President could be someone whose name isn’t even in the conversation today.
The truth is we don’t have a clue how 2016 is going to turn out. And with over a thousand days to go, that’s perfectly OK.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly said the mayor of Newark leveled the Sandy charge against Christie.