Welcome to the totally useless portion of the 2020 primaries

What can the spring of 2019 tell us about next year's primaries? Not a lot!

(Image credit: Illustrated | eyewave/iStock, Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images, Jessica Hromas/Getty Images)

Joe Biden is having a moment. The former vice president delayed his presidential campaign announcement for months after those of other serious Democratic contenders, but since jumping into the race in late April with a tweet that looks like my mom's texts, he has surged to the front of the pack.

A Quinnipiac University poll published Tuesday gave Biden a 26-point lead over his closest competitors, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who are neck and neck for a distant second. Other surveys have produced similar results, leading many to declare that the nomination is his to lose.

And that may well prove true. Or it may be that, three quarters of a year from now, when the presidential primaries actually begin, Biden's moment will have long since vanished. It is even conceivable — maybe not likely, but certainly possible — he will drop out of the race before the Iowa caucuses ever begin. The reality is we just don't know, and horse race polling at this stage is historically non-predictive to the point of being utterly useless. I suppose I shouldn't say this, as a member of the media, but: There's no good reason to follow it at all.

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As of this writing, we are 552 days from the 2020 general election. At the same distance from the 2008 election, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani led the GOP field by 12.4 points, and he would hold on to that advantage for 249 days.

But Giuliani never became president.

After edging out competitors John McCain and Fred Thompson for months of frontrunner status, especially in high-delegate states like California and New York, Giuliani came under fire for his position on abortion, alleged corruption during his mayoral tenure, and links to a member of the Qatari royal family who was in turn said to be linked to al Qaeda. He didn't bother to compete in Iowa; finished an embarrassing fourth in New Hampshire; came in sixth in Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina; and withdrew from the race by the end of January after a crushing loss in Florida, where last-minute rallies attracted barely more supporters than press.

These days, "America's mayor" is living out the desperately sad old age of a man either habituated or addicted to beclowning himself on television at ungodly hours on Sunday morning.

The 2008 Republican race was no anomaly in this regard. Hillary Clinton led the Democratic field at the same point in that contest, and she continued to do so for 286 more days before Barack Obama's eventual victory. When we were 552 days out from the 2016 election, Jeb! Bush was the Republican frontrunner, and Donald Trump was a month and a half away from riding down his golden escalator to launch his campaign. (All these numbers come via The Washington Post's "Who led?" project, which provides daily updates on who led each primary race on the comparable day in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections.)

The 2012 GOP and 2016 Democratic primaries were more predictable at this stage — their eventual victors both led at the 552-day mark — but hardly a surefire thing. The 2012 GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, repeatedly slipped from frontrunner status in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012. In December of 2011, Newt Gingrich briefly led with 35 percent support. In February of 2012, Rick Santorum surged to first with 34 percent. Clinton's ascendancy in 2016 was more certain, but as a two-candidate race for the bulk of the contest, it is the least like 2020's crowded Democratic field.

America’s presidential elections are insufferably protracted, lasting nearly half the term of the office they fill. This will be a long horse race. Think endurance riding, not the quick thrill of the Kentucky Derby (though the election is likely to make you feel the need for a mint julep). And while you are probably not running for president yourself — though honestly, as the Democratic field threatens to hit 30, maybe you are? — you'll need to pace yourself, too.

You have more important things to do with your time than tracking polls which are at present essentially meaningless. Unless you are a campaign staffer, there is no value in getting worked up over who is leading who with what demographics in which states when we are months away from the first primary debates and may not even have the final slate of declared candidates to consider.

Even if you have a Ron Paul 2008 or Bernie Sanders 2016-style loyalty to one contender, you following the horse race nine months before the first primary will not do him or her an iota of good — but you may well burn yourself out, limiting any actual personal contribution you might make to your candidate's success when it counts.

A lot can and will change between now and Iowa, let alone the general election. Biden may indeed be the Democrat to beat, but he may also follow Giuliani's path to an early exit. Either way, we are in a totally useless portion of the primaries in which almost nothing matters at all. Do yourself a favor and ignore it for a while.

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