Throughout the second half of 2003, Vermont Governor Howard Dean was the dominant figure in the Democratic presidential primary. His full-throated denunciation of the war in Iraq won him the fervent support of progressives; the use of the internet in his campaign put him millions of dollars ahead of his rivals. An army of solicitors, dressed in orange hats, swarmed the early states. By the end of the year, he was dominating the polls and had won the endorsement of the two previous Democratic nomination contenders, Al Gore and Bill Bradley. (That’s when a CNN anchor asked me on air, “Is the race over?” My “no” is one of the highlights of my television career. ). Meanwhile, Senator John Kerry struggled to survive; he was so underwater in Iowa and New Hampshire that some reporters entered a lottery to pick the day Kerry would drop out.

Then voters got to weigh in.

Kerry won the Iowa caucuses, with Sen. John Edwards second. Dean finished a very weak third. And while coverage focused on his nocturnal caucus ‘cry’ – a poorly reported event – it happened after Democrats in Iowa had firmly rejected it and after his numbers in New Hampshire had begun to crater.

Four years later, it was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — “America’s Mayor” — who dominated the Republican presidential race. He was far ahead in national polls and in early states as well. At some point early in the race, Giuliani excitedly explained to me that the rules for selecting delegates in places like New York and New Jersey would secure him the lion’s share of those delegates.

Then voters got to weigh in.

It turned out that Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire weren’t enthralled by a candidate who favored abortion rights, gay rights and gun control legislation. By the time the contests began, Giuliani had given up on the early states, eventually abandoning his campaign entirely. Those delegate selection rules he had confidently viewed as his ticket to the nomination helped seal the contest for Sen. John McCain, once left for dead.

And on the Democratic side? Hillary Clinton was so far ahead in the polls that the producer of the CBS Evening News commissioned me to write an article explaining why she was so invulnerable. I was saved from embarrassment when a shrewd Republican strategist, Michael Murphy, warned against such judgment. This is a year for a candidate for change, Murphy said, and she cannot be a candidate for change.

Then voters got to weigh in.

Murphy was right. By winning the Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama has not only become a killer of giants; he demonstrated that a black candidate could win a more or less all-white state. Almost overnight, Clinton’s strength among black Democrats — she shared support roughly equally with Obama — disintegrated. What was considered an easy victory for Clinton in mid-2003 became an uphill contest that dragged on through the primary season and ultimately lost.

Are these examples too old to be relevant? Well, let’s step back, to… the last presidential campaign, to see how even the start of the nominating contest can provide more noise than signal about what voters want.

From mid-2019 to the first primaries in early 2020, Joe Biden was a pitiful figure: lagging in the polls, strapped for money, drawing meager crowds. It was Bernie Sanders, with his enormous fundraising abilities and emerging strength as a champion of progressives, who was the candidate to beat. After his (narrow) win in New Hampshire and his (landslide) victory in the Nevada caucuses, much of the coverage of the race posed the question: Could Sanders amass enough delegates by Super Tuesday? to be nearly unstoppable?

Then the first large contingent of black Democratic voters stepped in. On February 29 in South Carolina, Biden won with almost 50% of the vote, two and a half times that of Sanders. Within 96 hours, most of Biden’s rivals had pulled out of the race and endorsed him; Biden then bulldozed through the Super Tuesday pitch and the nominating contest was over.

These examples are part of a larger picture; they do not include times when a candidate became the leader in the polls one week, only to be swept into insignificance the following week. (At some point in these contests, Joe Lieberman, Wesley Clark, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Ben Carson all ranked first in opinion polls). They do not include those moments in the heart of the primary season when a single event during a debate can render months of analysis ineffective. (Think of Rick Perry’s inability to remember the name of one of the Cabinet agencies he pledged to eliminate during a 2011 debate. Hint: it was the Energy Department. , which he would later lead under Donald Trump.)

The point here is not to argue for a vow of journalistic silence in the long slog leading up to the actual competitions; it’s to put that part of the process in context, with a good dose of humility. Yes, Trump looks weakened, but are we really ready to anoint Ron DeSantis the nominee before he proves himself on the big stage? Yes, Biden is an octogenarian whose approval ratings have been underwater since August 2021, but is anyone in his party really about to challenge his grip on the White House?

To reverse George Santayana’s galloping warning: remembering the hyperventilated coverage of past presidential elections, we may not be doomed to repeat it.

First off, it might be a real service to readers and viewers to end all of the 2024 stories with one final line: “Of course, none of this is likely to matter when the votes are cast.”

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