For quite some time, there has been only one trend in national polls on the Democratic nomination campaign: complete stability. Pollster.com offers a useful, visual demonstration of this stability:
Real Clear Politics, due to their different methodology, shows a bit more movement. Even then, however, the range of movement has been narrow. Since late February, Real Clear Politics shows Clinton’s national average varying from 32.7%--38.9%, Obama’s varying from 22.0%--25.8%, and Edwards varying from 10.3%--17.8%. None of these ranges are particularly wide, especially Clinton’s and Obama’s. As the Pollster.com chart shows, the slight variations from time to time in the Real Clear Politics average are almost certainly statistical noise, depending on little more than margin of error and which polling firms where included in the averages at any given point in time. Actual movement was probably, at most, one or two points in either direction.
Although fewer data points lead to somewhat less stable trend lines, the situation in early state polling is not much different. In Iowa, Edwards narrowly leads Clinton, who narrowly leads Obama, just as it has been for months. The only clear change is tht Richardson is trending up.In New Hampshire, since the beginning of the year, Clinton and Richardson are up a few points, while Edwards is down a few points. These slight movement are not much to write home about. In essence, the campaign is almost exactly where it was four or five months ago, except that Richardson has moved up a few points in Iowa and New Hampshire.
This stability is not a healthy development for the progressive ecosystem, and that is not just the lament of an elections junkie who has grown slightly bored with the Democratic horserace. Even if you are not a political junkie, a stable campaign tends to also be a boring campaign. There are, of course, other ways for a campaign to be exciting while still being stable, but this campaign generally lacks those features as well. A close campaign can be an exciting campaign, ala Gore Bush 2000. However, outside of Iowa, South Carolina and the money race, this campaign is not very close. A campaign where the candidates stake out distinct positions can be exciting, ala the 1988 Democratic primary. However, so far that top candidates seem kind of blurred. A campaign that heralds the arrival of new constituencies, or which utilizes new tactics, can also be exciting while being stable. However, with few exceptions in this cycle mostly related to the Obama campaign, I have seen very little that did not emerge already in 2004. The big personalities among the top three or four candidates excited people for a while, but after a few months I think that is even starting to wear off.
The 2008 Democratic nomination campaign has grown far too stable—far too boring. A boring campaign is not good for the progressive ecosystem, because it results in a less engaged progressive rank and file. For a while, this campaign was exciting a record amount of interest among the Democratic base, as shown by the image from Pew on the right. However, in recent weeks, the much more exciting Republican horserace (Thompson’s entry, McCain’s collapse, Romney’s rise, Giuliani skipping Iowa, etc) has resulted in Republicans closing the engagement gap. This is dangerous, because when Democrats were more engaged, it resulted in far more activism conducted on behalf of Democratic campaigns than Republican campaigns (the gap in donor levels made that obvious enough). In turn, this greater activism resulted in every Democratic candidate improving his or her standing against every Republican candidate in general election trial heats (source). Clinton, Edwards and Obama all wiped out double-digit deficits to both McCain and Giuliani, and now hold leads—sometimes, crushing leads—against every hypothetical Republican nominee. However, with the engagement gap closing, at least partially because of the boring stability of the Democratic campaign, I worry those advantages in terms of activism and poll numbers might start to disappear.
Maybe those pundits who said progressive activists would get burned out by the hyperactive, early start to the presidential campaign were right. Or, perhaps the Democratic advantages in polls and activism will persist, and maybe I am simple worried over nothing. Maybe this is just the lament of an election junkie who would prefer one major new twist in the campaign at least every other week. After all, my dream scenario is for both the Democratic and Republican nominations to not be clearly decided until the conventions, thus making August, 2008 the most exciting political month ever. With a fantasy like that, it is pretty clear that my sentiments lie almost as much with an exciting horserace as they do with an acceptable outcome. For nearly three months now, there hasn’t been enough chaos in the Democratic side of this campaign to cause the wing of a single butterfly to flutter, much less satisfy someone like myself.