It’s easy to look at national polls and assume that Joe Biden has a lock on the Democratic nomination for president. The current Real Clear Politics average has him at 34.8%, more than 18 points above his nearest rival, Bernie Sanders, and 25 points above Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. But primaries aren’t decided on national votes, and the past two primaries with crowded fields show us that who’s leading at this stage doesn’t necessarily tell you who’s going to be leading this time next year.
The reality is that most voters haven’t paid close attention yet. The first debates aren’t until June 26 and 27, and will include names we haven’t heard as much, like Bullock, Gabbard, Hickenlooper, Inslee, Swalwell, Williamson and Yang. Thus far, Biden has tried to ignore the field and run against Trump, but there are nearly two dozen candidates who will try to make that impossible.
While many of these candidates are blips on the national stage, they’ve already made more headway in early states like Iowa, where Biden’s slice of the pie shrinks to less than 24% and candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Amy Klobachar and John Delaney see their national percentages just about double.
At this stage in the 2016 Republican primary, Donald Trump hadn’t officially announced yet, though he was just starting to get mentioned in the polls, where he was languishing in ninth place. Jeb Bush was leading the pack with about 15%, followed by Scott Walker and Marco Rubio. The last two candidates to drop out, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, were at seventh and 11th places respectively. Even after Trump took a commanding lead in 2015, Ben Carson would catch him momentarily in November.
In the 2012 Republican primary, Mitt Romney would start as the front-runner but would lose his lead in the national polls at various times to no less than four different candidates—Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. He finally took the lead for good at the end of February 2012.
Electorates like to try on different front-runners for size before the first state contests even begin. The vitriol the Democratic base feels toward the president means that many of these candidates will get their moments in the spotlight to shine or fade in town halls, in-depth profiles and, of course, those debate stages. Their on-the-ground organizations will matter when it’s finally time to caucus in Iowa or vote in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Arizona. And on March 3, 2020, 14 states including California and Texas will finally give us a real sense of who might be facing Donald Trump in the general election, assuming he doesn’t actually shoot someone on Fifth Avenue.
In case you’re wondering who’s in ninth place right now? That’d be former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro.