The past, as they say, is prologue, and the changing of the calendar to the official start of a presidential election year brings a new seriousness to the pursuits of the parties' presidential nominations.
All that went before was little more than strutting and posturing. The party campaigns were popularity contests last year, entertaining but, once the holidays are over and the primaries loom on the horizon, the rhetoric becomes strangely irrelevant.
Participation is what is relevant, and that is a whole other thing.
The people who participate in the voting that will matter — the contests that will assign the actual delegates who will be voting at this summer's conventions — will be highly motivated, especially the ones who participate in the caucuses. They are very different from primaries.
If you live in a caucus state, you must get organized with like–minded folks so you can make an effective case for your candidate at the caucus. Caucus goers often have to devote several hours to their caucus — as opposed to those who vote in primaries, in which you may have to stand in line for awhile but, eventually, you will only spend a brief period in the polling booth — and you will do so alone. With the extended voting periods in so many states, if you plan it well, you can walk right in, vote and walk back out in a matter of minutes. I know. I've done it.
Taking part in either a primary or a caucus does require a level of commitment that not everyone is willing to make. Those are the only poll results I want to see. It doesn't really mean anything until people start voting in primaries or caucuses.
The people who attend political rallies may be registered to vote, but registered voters and likely voters are two different breeds altogether.
It doesn't take much commitment to attend a political rally. Donald Trump has been drawing thousands to his rallies, but many in the crowds are those who, while they may be registered to vote, do not tend to make a habit of voting. Thus, they are not likely voters.
Of course, the same could be said of many who attended Ross Perot's rallies in 1992, but in the end Perot brought nearly 20 million Americans into the electoral process. It remains to be seen if Trump's supporters can match Perot's in terms of commitment.
And we'll start finding out in three weeks, when Iowa holds its caucuses.
The closer we get to actual voting, the more pollsters seem to be moving in the direction of differentiating between merely registered voters and likely voters.
Reach Communications' most recent survey ahead of the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary was conducted with Republicans and independents who said they would be voting in the primary. Donald Trump led by 20 percentage points. Fox News' most recent poll was with likely voters, who are determined through a series of screening questions. That survey showed Trump with an 18–point lead.
Public Policy Polling's latest survey — also conducted among likely voters — shows Trump with a 14–point lead.
The Trump–Ted Cruz battle in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses could be fierce. The most recent Gravis Marketing survey in Iowa was conducted in December, but it, too, emphasized those who were likely to participate. It found Trump and Cruz tied at 31% apiece.
"Many more people say they will vote than actually do," observes the Gallup Organization at its website, "so it is not sufficient to simply ask people whether they will vote."
Gallup's screening questions are:
Thought given to election (quite a lot, some)
Know where people in neighborhood go to vote (yes)
Voted in election precinct before (yes)
How often vote (always, nearly always)
Plan to vote in 2016 election (yes)
Likelihood of voting on a 10-point scale (7-10)
Voted in last presidential election (yes)
Each pollster uses its own screening questions, but the process is essentially the same from one to another.
My guess is that, as we get closer to each primary or caucus, the polls from each state will be conducted with likely voters.
And that is when we will start to get an idea whether a candidate's support has any real depth to it.