Shortly after the 1988 presidential election, pollsters asked Democrats whom they favored to be their party's nominee in 1992. The strongest candidates were Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York. The governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, didn't even register.
Eight years ago, after another election, the pollsters tried again. The front-runners for the 2008 Democratic nomination, they found, were Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John F. Kerry. The newly elected senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, wasn't on the list.
It's clear that handicapping a presidential campaign four years in advance is just plain foolish. But will that stop the pollsters? No such luck.
With the dust barely settled from this year's election, voters are already being asked whom they like for 2016, and on the Democratic side, it's a landslide for Mrs. Clinton, with 61 percent of Democratic voters favoring her.
And that has produced a wave of predictions from people who ought to know better.
"Every Democrat I know says, 'God, I hope she runs,'" James Carville said this week. "We don't need a primary. Let's just go to post with this thing."
At least one Republican sounds as if he's ready to throw in the towel.
"The Republican Party is incapable of competing at that level," Newt Gingrich, the former GOP presidential candidate, said. "She's a very competent person. She's married to the most popular Democrat in the country. ... It makes it virtually impossible to stop her for the nomination."
Mr. Gingrich's judgment, unsteady at the best of times, may be colored by his resentment that the GOP didn't make him its nominee. And Mr. Carville has been an unabashed Hillary fan ever since he arrived in Little Rock in 1991 to run Bill Clinton's campaign. During her presidential run in 2008, he said, all too memorably, "If she gave [Obama] one of her cojones, they'd both have two."
That doesn't mean the rest of us have to fall for Hillarymania. Yes, she's done a generally estimable job as secretary of state, but the last president to ascend from that springboard was John Quincy Adams. Yes, she'd be the most experienced candidate in the race, but that was true in 2008 too, and she bungled the campaign.
Besides, it's not clear that Mrs. Clinton wants to run. Democrats say it's clear that her husband wants her to do it, but she doesn't owe him much deference on a choice like that. She'll be 69 years old on Election Day 2016, and she has told aides that the two things she wants most at this point are a rest and a grandchild.
And even if she does run, there's no reason to think she'd be unopposed. Here, for what little it's worth, is a list of some possible other contenders:
• Vice President Joe Biden comes in second in the polls, a tribute to affability, longevity and name recognition. He loves politics and hates the idea of retiring. Mr. Biden will be 73 in 2016, which would make him the oldest nominee in history.
• At 58 in 2016, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo certainly won't have aged out. He's been effective and popular in his home state, managing to please both liberals (by passing a gay marriage law) and moderates (by cutting spending and implementing tax reform). But despite his famous name, he's still largely unknown to Democratic voters west of Buffalo.
• Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia isn't well known either, but he'd be a favorite among centrist Democrats, especially in the South. A former governor and entrepreneur, Mr. Warner has been active in the Senate's moderate "Gang of Eight," credentials that could win him backing from Wall Street — and suspicion from liberals. He'll be 61 in 2016.
• Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is already a liberal heartthrob, and she could make history by turning the primaries into a two-woman race. Progressives loved her fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention, and she knows how to raise money after collecting a remarkable $42 million in her race against Sen. Scott Brown. She'll be 67 in 2016.
• Two Democratic governors have mused openly about running: Martin O'Malley of Maryland (52 in 2016 — a kid!) and Brian Schweitzer of Montana (61). Would their appeal carry beyond their home states? We'll find out three years from now. A third governor, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, has been admirably specific: He won't run for president in 2016 (when he'll be 62), he says, but he might run later.
All of them bear watching — but not yet. It's far too early to be thinking about 2016. You'd never catch me doing it.