(Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

The savviest of pundits will tell you that at this stage of a presidential primary race, polls are meaningless. After all, at this point in the chaotic 2016 Republican primary campaign, polls showed Jeb Bush leading the race, followed by Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson.

But it’s not really true that the polls today are meaningless. They may not be able to tell you who’s going to win the Democratic Party nomination, but they can tell you a good deal about what people are thinking so far, even as those opinions are bound to change.

Democratic primary voters have had a few months to get first impressions of the two dozen candidates who want to be president, and in a bit of accidental wisdom, they seem unsure about who should be their party’s nominee. Which is completely appropriate. Let’s see if we can make sense of where the race is at the moment.

A new Post/ABC News poll tried to get a handle on that uncertainty by asking people who they’re supporting in a few ways. The pollsters asked an open-ended question, in which respondents were asked which candidate they like with no names offered. Then they supplied respondents with a list from which they could choose.

The results show almost the same order in which the candidates get support (at least at the top), but very different totals. This itself is extremely important. Here’s how it shook out:


So when you give them a list, only 7 percent of potential primary voters can’t tell you their favored candidate, but when they have to come up with the candidate’s name themselves, that number rises to 41 percent. If you say you’re supporting, say, Pete Buttigieg when you were given a list, but couldn’t recall which candidate you’re supporting when you had to remember it yourself, it’s safe to say your support isn’t particularly firm.

The truth is that the actual number of people who aren’t really supporting any candidate at this stage is almost certainly higher. A lot of respondents will say, “Uh, I’m supporting ... Biden I guess?” even if their opinion is malleable and reflects that he has the highest name recognition. Nobody wants to look dumb, so if respondents don’t have a real opinion they’ll just say whatever comes to mind. Pollsters refer to these responses as “pseudo-opinions” or “nonattitudes.”

Also, there are plenty of people who have someone they’re leaning toward now, but they could be easily dislodged from that position, by a controversy, something that happens in a debate, or because some other candidate caught their eye.

In any case, when we look at other polls — each done with its own methodology and small variations in question wording — we see different results. Here are a bunch of surveys in the past couple of days:

  • CNN: Biden 22, Harris 17, Warren 15, Sanders 14
  • Quinnipiac: Biden 22, Harris 20, Warren 14, Sanders 13
  • Economist/YouGov: Biden 21, Warren 18, Harris 13, Sanders 10

And here’s a couple of Iowa polls:

Which one of these is right? All of them, and none of them. When people’s opinions are this fluid, there is no “real” level of support any of the candidates has.

Which is why at this stage, pollsters would do well to try to probe that uncertainty, and some are trying. The Economist/YouGov poll, for instance, asked which candidates voters are considering. Warren came out on top (53 percent), followed by Harris (46), Biden (44) and Sanders (35).

That poll also asked an unusual question: whether respondents would be disappointed if each candidate became the nominee. Warren was on top here, too: Only 8 percent of Democrats would be disappointed if she won, compared to 10 percent for Harris, 23 percent for Biden and 24 percent for Sanders. (The most disappointing nominee would be Marianne Williamson at 32 percent.)

What does all this tell us? Most voters haven’t been paying close attention to the race and lack impressions of most of the candidates. Eighteen million people watched at least part of the second Democratic debate, a large number — but it’s still far less than the number who will eventually vote in the primaries (and plenty of those 18 million were Republicans or independents).

The big picture

If you pull back to 30,000 feet, the big picture is that there are four candidates (Biden, Warren, Harris, and Sanders) getting the most support, with the differences between them not particularly large. Then there are a few others (Buttigieg, Castro, Booker, O’Rourke) who have at least measurable if still small support. Then there are many others who haven’t managed to get enough attention to get significant numbers of voters to consider them.

But they still could! Harris and Castro both did well in the first debates, which resulted in a lot of positive press coverage, which increased their support. It could happen to anyone. And for at least a couple of them, it probably will.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Sometimes, even in post-debate polling, conventional wisdom gets it right

The Post’s View: The first Democratic debate offered plenty to cheer for

Eugene Robinson: Kamala Harris got everyone’s attention. Can she keep it?

Stephen Stromberg: The question that separated the serious from the ridiculous

Alexandra Petri: And here is what happened in Night 2 of the first debate, as seen by me