Today’s strangest news involves a new USAT/Suffolk poll of likely 2016 Iowa Caucus-goers that listed Mitt Romney as a candidate right along with everybody else. Mitt got 35%, and nobody else broke double digits.

Dave Weigel provided the best reaction I’ve seen so far:

Honestly, it feels a little cruel for the voters who gave Romney only 25 percent of the caucus vote, and second place, for two consecutive election cycles, to come off like they’ve got Romneyphilia.

I’d say that understates it. Iowa totally screwed up Romney’s 2008 strategy, giving a caucus win to Mike Huckabee despite something like a six-gazillion-to-one financial advantage for the Mittster. And though Romney did marginally better there in 2012, Iowa turned Rick Santorum from a ridiculed Capital L Loser into a viable candidate who gave Mitt a more serious scare than anyone else. If Romney is actually thinking about running again (which I very seriously doubt), he might well figure this poll is a trick by Iowans to lure him back into the state so they can help crush his dreams one more time.

But laughable as this poll is, should we follow Weigel’s inclination of treating it as an example of the utter meaninglessness of “too early” polling? Now I’m prejudiced here: I strongly believe all data is worth having so long as it’s placed in the proper context; I’m never inclined to set some arbitrary date before which any information is somehow “too early.” But matter of fact, I do think there’s some value in the USAT/Suffolk poll, even if you agree it does not mean Mitt should start picking his cabinet.

We should already understand that early polls are heavily affected by name ID, so of course Mitt has more of that than anybody else; that’s what nearly a trillion dollars in paid ads (plus the negative ads from Obama, plus all the “earned media”) during a presidential general election will do for you. But what the poll really dramatizes that’s worth knowing is that this could be the most wide-open GOP presidential contest since, oh, maybe 1944. Take Mitt out, and only two candidates reach double digits. Nobody’s in the position Romney had at this point or soon after in the 2012 cycle; Rudy Guiliani had in 2008; Bush had in 2000; Dole had in 1996; Poppy had in 1988; Reagan had in 1980; Ford had in 1976; Nixon had in 1968; Goldwater (after Rocky’s remarriage) had in 1964…. okay, you get my drift. Democrats have been in this position before, and there were constant stories about the “seven dwarfs” in 1988 or the candidates who chose not to run in 1992. There’s not even a non-candidate I can think of whose entry into the race would transform it, as it was supposed Mitch Daniels or Jeb Bush would have in 2012.

So laugh all you want at 2014 MittMania in Iowa. It’s a negative reflection of a party with a real leadership problem.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.