It’s Early: Why Pundits Shouldn’t Overreact

by Stuart Rothenberg March 26, 2015 · 3:43 PM EDT

The reviews are in after the first game of spring training: Hillary Rodham Clinton struck out. Or at best, she hit a slow roller to second base and was thrown out by a mile.

She’s toast. It’s over for her. She has handled the email controversy like an amateur. The former secretary of State is old hat. She’s yesterday’s news. What a disaster. Democrats need to find someone else.

Welcome to the world of instant analysis and premature conclusions.

The race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination taught me a good lesson. Much of the early stuff written over the years — by me and by others — about the contests for the Republican and Democratic nominations was baloney.

This goes for the things said by reporters, political analysts and talking heads I’ve never heard of but who are labeled Republican or Democratic “strategists” on the cable TV networks. And, as I have already said, I don’t exclude myself from the list of those who uttered ill-advised, incorrect statements.

For evidence, all you need to do is look back at what was written and said near the end of 2003 and during the first weeks of 2004, just before the Iowa Democratic caucuses in January.

In mid-November, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union jointly endorsed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Less than one month later, on Dec. 9, former Vice President Al Gore endorsed him too.

Not quite a month after that, on Jan. 6, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who had sought his party’s presidential nomination four years earlier, came out for Dean, followed three days later by then-Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

Normally, I’m skeptical of the importance of endorsements in a high-profile contest, but this series of backers convinced me and others that Dean, whose ground game and appeal to the party’s base seemed like a perfect fit for the caucuses, would win in Iowa and march on to the Democratic nomination.

Veteran Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said Dean was “in the driver’s seat,” after the Gore endorsement. “This is a tremendous boost for the Dean candidacy,” she added, incorrectly it turned out.

The Washington Post also quoted Brazile saying Gore’s support “will give Dean a tremendous boost in locking down the nomination.”

The Los Angeles Times described Harkin’s endorsement of the Vermont governor as “a major boost in Dean’s quest to win the pivotal Iowa caucuses.”

Not to be outdone, I got into the act by telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Dean has wrapped up the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Well, almost.”

My delusions were equally apparent in the Columbus Dispatch, where I was quoted saying that after Gore’s endorsement of Dean, the Democratic contest was “virtually over.”

In my defense and in defense of others, the series of endorsements occurred after months of campaigning by the candidates and just a short time before the caucuses and combined with other considerations, they seemed to reflect a broadening in support for Dean and a clear path to the Democratic nomination.

I even have it on good authority that for a time in late 2003 or early 2004, the George W. Bush campaign’s research team stopped collecting information on all of the Democratic contenders except for the Vermonter.

Polling conducted in Iowa and nationally also showed Dean surging to the head of the Democratic race.

A Nov. 25 to Dec. 4 Pew Research Center poll had Dean leading Richard A. Gephardt in the Iowa caucuses by 8 points and ahead of John Kerry by 11 points. A late November Iowa State poll showed Dean ahead by 8 points, while an early January Los Angeles Times survey showed his margin over Gephardt at 7 points.

In addition, four major national polls conducted between mid-December and early January showed Dean leading the Democratic race with 7 points to 14 points.

But all of those assessments were wrong because we jumped the gun. Iowa caucus attendees almost always make their decisions at the last minute.

In the actual results, Kerry beat John Edwards in the Iowa caucuses by about 6 points, with Dean a distant third and Gephardt a very disappointing fourth.

So, 2004 proved to me how quickly things can change, and how late in the calendar it is before caucus-goers make up their minds about who they will support.

Fast-forward to 2015 and you should see rather easily that the early reviews of candidates and potential candidates shouldn’t be given too much weight.

Clinton had a difficult few weeks, but she has plenty of assets and allies and unless the most recent rough period causes her to change her mind about running or a few more shoes drop, she looks about as likely today as she did a month ago to become the Democratic nominee for president in 2016.

Political journalists write and talk about politics every day, and every day there is news to be discussed and events worth dissecting. All of that is fine — and fun for many of us.

But there is a world of difference between observing Clinton’s recent performance and reflecting on her problems and opportunities on one hand, and jumping to conclusions about her viability on the other. Don’t forget that, especially this early in an election cycle.

I know I won’t.