"What Hillary Clinton's health means for 2016?" "No obvious 2016 GOP leader." "Obama Is Boosting Biden's 2016 Prospects."
At least 154 weeks before the first presidential nominating contests of the 2016 election, news headlines offer a carnival of speculation about the pressing matter of who will next ascend to the White House when the not-yet-inaugurated president departs from D.C. in a mere 1,464 days.
After the lengthy 2012 presidential campaign -- with its daily news cycles often accelerated by 140-character Twitter news parcels -- the forward-looking speculation fills a void for political professionals, pundits and news consumers uninterested in the machinations of ongoing congressional policy negotiations, experts note.
"Presidents become lame ducks very quickly," said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist and media critic who writes for the Columbia Journalism Review. "There's a lot of legislative action now but it's often difficult to get much done in a second term, so attention tends to shift pretty quickly to succession."
And there's beginning to be some data to talk about.
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles as President Barack Obama mentions her name during a news conference with Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi after a meeting in in Yangon in this Nov. 19, 2012 file photograph.
It took just one month after the 2012 election for North Carolina-based polling outfit Public Policy Polling to test the favorability of 17 could-be presidential candidates, from the ubiquitous Clinton and Marco Rubio -- who lead the Democratic and Republican packs respectively -- to the nationally unknown governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer.
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"There's a lot of people who just aren't that interested in fiscal cliff negotiations and that sort of thing, and they're still kind of winding down from the presidential race," said pollster Tom Jensen. "To some extent we're feeding the beast, and that's a role we're willing to fill."
Jensen pointed out that, while national polling this early in the presidential game isn't particularly useful in predicting the actual outcome of the years-away contest, his polling outfit is gradually building a useful record of how possible candidates' public images have changed over time.
A casual look back at early polling confirms that premature beauty contests between potential candidates -- if taken as mere snapshots and not as trends -- are most likely to be wistful or droll than visionary.
A Time poll taken in January 2007 showed a likely 2008 general election match-up between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. (The latter ended up spending a whopping $48.8 million in his failed presidential bid, which ultimately won only one national delegate.) In February 2011, Gallup numbers showed a statistical tie for the GOP nomination between eventual nominee Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. (Neither Palin nor Huckabee even entered the 2012 race.) As late as April of 2011, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed billionaire and noted Twitter mischief-maker Donald Trump tied for second place in the hypothetical Republican nomination race.
A single poll now isn't likely to be any more accurate by Election Day 2016, said Jensen, although it will provide a useful baseline to track the eventual nominees' ascension to the top of the heap.
"Clearly, we're not claiming that any of the polling we're doing right now is terribly predictive, because we don't even know who's going to run," Jensen said of early 2016 surveys. "But I think it's perfectly harmless to be accumulating this record. And if nothing else, people find it interesting."
Much of that interest focuses on Clinton, who emerged from a vitriolic 2008 primary against Barack Obama with her public image among Democrats somewhat remarkably unscathed. Her popularity outside the party has soared as well, hitting above the 50 percent mark with independents and at a quarter with Republicans in the latest NBC/WSJ poll. Unlike any of the other contenders -- other than possibly Vice President Joe Biden -- she also has nearly universal name recognition, making chatter easy and relatively low-risk for lovers of the horse race.
At the Clinton Foundation's Health Matters Conference in La Quinta, Calif., former President Bill Clinton talks about Hillary's future plans concerning 2016.
"By most accounts, Hillary Clinton would be the preemptive savior on the Democratic side, and she has this unbelievably complex and interesting political history," said Nyhan. "It's hard for people to avoid getting into that, as premature as it may be. She's catnip to the media."
And Clinton is in the news, with recent health troubles and the bubbling controversy over the September consulate attack in Benghazi giving commentators plenty of pegs to discuss the political future of the outgoing secretary of state. It doesn't hurt that popular former President Bill Clinton has a penchant for appearing at high-profile events; he recently popped up at the Golden Globes.
There's also Biden. A visible right-hand man to the president, Biden has two presidential runs under his belt and can boast negotiating credentials over the fiscal cliff and gun control issues in recent months. It's not clear yet that Biden, who will be 73 in November 2016, will definitely make a run for the office that's eluded him during his long political career, but his penchant for colorful language (some would say 'gaffes') makes him constant headline-fodder at least until he makes a public indication of whether or not he may run.
Another reason for the 2016 talk may be that the people most likely to be speculating about the next presidential campaign are those most likely to spend, gamble, or make money on it.
The 2012 campaign blew out previous records for spending, with each side raising over a billion dollars. Outside groups spent well over $500 million to influence the results, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Potential consultants, donors and operatives have a vested interest in mapping out the maze of political dominoes that, in their various patterns, determine which standard-bearers are the best bets for paychecks and payoffs.
And that's nothing new. Early pre-election coalition-building dates back far into the nation's history, notes Hans Noel, a professor of government at Georgetown University and an expert on political primaries. He notes that early behind-the-scenes planning was already a well-established part of the political process by the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose emissaries traveled across the country with records of Roosevelt's speeches to play for potential supporters.
"Early polls really have no meaning at all at this point, but they're going to drive media coverage of this conversation," Noel said. "The media conversation and the insider conversation overlap but they are separate. And the insider conversation is probably more predictive and meaningful."
Predictive or not, haters will have to steel themselves for three more years of the media conversation in an environment where it's never too early for the kind of low-risk predictions that the chattering class really loves.
Because at the end of the day, no matter who the nominees are, it's all going to come down to turnout.