I spent the last week traveling. Part of the trip was to see family. Part of the trip was a conference. In both cases, though, people wanted to talk about the same thing: the 2016 presidential election. Would Hillary run? Did Rand Paul have a chance? Was Chris Christie finished?
I'm not a very fun person to have these conversations with. My answer to pretty much any question related to the 2016 presidential election is the same: I don't know — and neither does anyone else. Here's why:
1. In June 2006 — so at about this point in the 2008 presidential cycle — Gallup asked Democrats who they wanted to see their party nominate in 2008. The results, in order: Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, John Edwards, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, Joe Biden, Russ Feingold, Mark Warner, Tom Daschle, and Tom Vilsack.
2. In other words, at this point in the 2008 election, the professional pollsters at Gallup didn't even think to ask voters about the candidate who would ultimately win the nomination — and the presidency. It seemed ridiculous, at that time, to believe Barack Obama would run. Meanwhile, only three of the 10 candidates in the poll ended up running for president.
3. In the same poll, Gallup asked Republicans to handicap their upcoming primary. The results, in order: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Bill Frist, George Allen, Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and George Pataki.
4. So of the nine candidates that Gallup thought most likely to run for the Republican nomination, only four of them actually ran.
5. In July 2006, the unemployment rate was 4.7 percent. Most observers would have thought it absurd to suggest that the 2008 election — and the next president's first term — would be dominated by a global financial crisis and an unemployment rate that would soon rise to 10 percent.
6. One year ago today, no one had heard of Bridgegate and Chris Christie was still a favorite for the Republican nomination. One week ago today there was little reason to believe that Russian-backed separatists — or maybe even Russia — would shoot down a Malaysia Airlines flight, killing hundreds of European travelers. What politics is about today is probably not what it's going to be about a year from today.
7. My point? Ah yes, my point. All the punditry about Hillary Clinton's weaknesses and Elizabeth Warren's strengths and Jeb Bush's machinations are about the world as it is now. But the sure thing about the world as it is now is that it's different than the world as it will be in 2016. Analyzing the 2016 election based on the 2014 world is like analyzing the 2016 Superbowl based on the 2014 NFL season: there's some valuable information there — it's interesting, for instance, that Hillary Clinton is polling so much better now than she was in 2006 — but you can be sure you're going to get a lot wrong.