Your Guide to a Crowded Field: TIME's Election Index

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Sometimes it's not who you like, it's who you know. That's the important axiom to remember at this stage of the presidential race, when polls say far more about name recognition than they do about actual likely victory. That's why TIME has created the Election Index, a framework for looking not just at who's the most popular but who has the most potential. Since through this prism, Hillary Clinton's whopping lead over other candidates is less important than her near-100% name recognition: If 98% of the population has already made up their minds about her, how can she ever get voter support above its current level of about 50%?

Pundits and bloggers would do well to tape a copy of these poll results, from ABC-Washington Post in January of 2003, on their monitors/mirrors/most viewed flat surface in their office:

Joseph Lieberman 27 Richard Gephardt 14 John Edwards 11 John Kerry 10 Al Sharpton 7 Howard Dean 3 Don't know 24

Looking back at the last open G.O.P. race, over a year and half out from Election Day, the results are less shocking than the prospect of a Lieberman-Gephardt ticket, but they do tend to support the hypothesis that early polls aren't so much even popularity contests as trivia quizzes (The question being, "Have you ever heard of this person before?"):

George W. Bush 49 Elizabeth Dole 20 Pat Buchanan 5 John McCain 5 Dan Quayle 4 Steve Forbes 3

Of course, a Bush and a Dole had both run for President before.

The otherworldly results from January 2003 remind us of just how much things can change in the course of months; contemporarily, bettors' odds illustrate just how fluid the race is this early, changing its face slightly practically daily. Hillary has remained at almost even odds for weeks, probably due to the public's fixed view of her, but other candidates' odds can change because of a single Daily Show appearance or, say, an Oscar nomination (Al Gore's odds improved considerably last Tuesday, to 9:1, though they've returned to the 16:1 range). After climbing steadily since September, Obama's odds have actually suffered since his announcement, though not by much, probably because of the increased scrutiny. On the Republican side, McCain has been facing worse and worse odds for about a month now, while Romney has been inching his way into plausibility; at 20:1, the only non-front-runner with odds against him running less than 50.