By Christopher W. Larimer, University of Northern Iowa Professor of Political Science
Another week, another twist in the polls. For the first time in a poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (22 percent) is leading all candidates according to the latest Monmouth University Poll. Former Vice President Joe Biden (19 percent) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (18 percent) round out the top three, while Senator Bernie Sanders is in fourth at 13 percent.
With all the caveats about margin of error and polls being a “snapshot in time,” the next question is: Can “Mayor Pete” hold on until caucus night?
Before you answer, keep in mind past caucus cycles.
At this time during the 2012 caucus cycle, the front-runners in Iowa were Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. In a late November 2011 poll, Gingrich was leading at 25 percent, followed by Ron Paul at 18 percent and Mitt Romney at 16 percent. The month prior, an Iowa Poll showed Herman Cain leading Mitt Romney 23 to 22 percent. Both Cain and Gingrich finished outside the top three on caucus night (Gingrich in 4th, Cain in 8th) while the eventual winner (Rick Santorum) didn’t show up as potentially leading until the last two days of polling.
Or, going back to the 2004 caucus cycle, as Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis Goldford document in their book, The Iowa Precinct Caucuses, Richard Gephardt was leading in November of 2003 at 27 percent, followed by Howard Dean at 20 percent, and eventual caucus winner, John Kerry, at 15 percent (Dean and Gephardt finished 3rd and 4th on caucus night, but well back of Kerry).
In short, a November lead doesn’t guarantee a January victory (or February in this case).