About this time eight years ago I was part of a panel in New Hampshire on the topic of the 2004 presidential election. Although not one primary or caucus had been held, the discussion focused on how the newly minted Democratic front-runner, Howard Dean, would fare in the fall campaign against President George W. Bush.
At the time, Dean was hitting his apex in the polls. The feeling was high that his lead for the Democratic nomination was secure, as he enjoyed a 20-plus point lead in the Gallup Poll over his nearest rival. And it seemed obvious to many that it was safe to fast forward and theorize how he would do against the incumbent Republican president.
One small problem: Such a pairing not only did not happen, it did not even come close to happening. Dean fell about as quickly in the polls as he had risen. He finished third in the Iowa caucuses, a distant second in the New Hampshire primary. And by shortly after Valentine’s Day, he was out of the race.
The lesson for the present: The rising star of December may very well flicker out by January, as arguably the most volatile point in the entire presidential campaign is the final days before the Iowa caucuses. It is a time when leads can evaporate, and dark horses can vault to the top.
That is what happened in early 2004. And it could happen again in 2012. It may look nowadays as though the Republican presidential race is down to Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, period. But it would be no surprise at all if there was another twist or turn before the Iowa caucuses.