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Meet Ann Selzer, the “queen” of Iowa polling

Wake Up To Politics - January 20, 2020
Meet Ann Selzer, the “queen” of Iowa polling

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP world headquarters in my bedroom. It’s Monday, January 20, 2020. 14 days until the Iowa caucuses. 288 days until Election Day. Have questions, comments, or tips? Email me.

Today marks the three-year anniversary of Donald Trump's swearing-in and one year until the next presidential inauguration. In today's late-sleep edition newsletter: A final piece of reporting from my trip to Iowa last week...

WUTP Interview: Ann Selzer, the "queen" of Iowa polling

Ann Selzer has been hailed as "the best pollster in politics" by FiveThirtyEight and as "Iowa's polling queen" by the Wall Street Journal.

"I prefer goddess," she joked when I mentioned those accolades in an interview last week at her West Des Moines office.

Selzer has been overseeing the Des Moines Register's venerated Iowa Poll for nearly every year since 1987, giving her an outsized perch from which to track the presidential campaigns as they kick off right in her backyard.

Selzer's Iowa expertise means political observers from across the globe flock to her every four years, attempting to glean any insight she can offer into the Hawkeye State's prized (but fickle) voters. (Our interview was briefly interrupted by a call from the British embassy. That's not unusual, she said: foreign diplomats are especially anxious to know who will emerge victorious in the Iowa caucuses and potentially seize the White House.)

In her telling, Selzer's superlative status is a result of the 2008 caucuses, when she was the only pollster to predict Barack Obama's stunning victory. What's the "secret sauce" that leads her to such accuracy? Selzer doesn't try to model likely turnout in future caucuses based on past voting behavior. Instead, "we ask everybody who is a registered voter if they're likely to caucus on the Democratic side, [no matter whether they are] registered Democrat, Republican, or Independent. We ask all of them."

In 2008, that meant her final pre-caucus poll projected that a "jaw-dropping" 60% of caucus-goers would be first-time participants in the primary process. That prediction received widespread skepticism, but on caucus night, 57% of attendees were new participants, fueling Obama's upset — and cementing Selzer's reputation.

Selzer calls her approach "polling forward." She explains: "Had I done anything that looked backward at what happened before, I would have been blinded from seeing what was coming in the future." Many pollsters base their survey pools off of previous caucus voting patterns, or don't bother questioning people with Republican or Independent registrations. Not Selzer. "Other people will weight their data to look like past caucusgoers and other sorts of things or decide that it's really only registered Democrats that matter, that they don't mind losing what might be happening with others. But if something big is happening, they won't see it. They will be quite literally blinded to it."

"I keep my dirty fingers off my data," Selzer said, adding: "If you're locked into looking at the post, you're not going to be able to see the change on a freight train coming right at you."

Selzer's most recent Iowa poll, conducted with CNN and the Des Moines Register, showed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders surging to a slight edge over his competitors. Sanders stood at 20%, followed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 17%, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 16%, and former Vice President Joe Biden at 15%. "It's a cluster of candidates," Selzer summarized, before launching into a synopsis of what the poll told her about the top-tier candidates.

"We had Bernie Sanders leading," she said. "He has a very committed core. They're the most locked-in of any candidate that we took a look at. And so with this being the first time he's ever led in Iowa, there's a symbolic boost that comes with that."

The other top contenders have all seen their support erode somewhat in Iowa, falling from first-place showings in previous Selzer polls (in November for Buttigieg, September for Warren, and June for Biden).

How does Selzer's diagnose these declines? For Warren, she pointed to the "unsettled waters" surrounding the senator's health care plan, citing Sanders' eight-point lead on the issue in the January poll. "That's a potential weakness for Elizabeth Warren," she said.

Moving onto Buttigieg, Selzer identified an "underpinning of concern about whether he's electable": even in the November poll that reflected his "meteoric rise" to a nine-point lead above the rest of the field, "the proportion [of voters] saying that they were very confident" in Buttigieg's ability to win the White House "was the smallest of any candidate."

Finally, arriving at Biden, Selzer recalled her earliest polling of the 2020 race, which she compared to a "Siren song" for Biden. "They will love you, they think you're fantastic, they want to vote for you, come on in," the polling seemed to say.

"And ever since then, his numbers have been fine. But underneath it, there's been some lack of real commitment to him as a candidate. They tend to think that he's the most electable: he does best when you're rating any candidates on that. But his favorability ratings have declined in each successive poll. People are liking him less and less."

In essence, each of the candidates has obvious strengths and vulnerabilities, and — according to Selzer — a real shot at winning the caucuses on February 3. Selzer is likely to conduct one more poll before caucus day; she said that it is not uncommon for lower-tier candidates to experience late surges in the final days, producing graphs to show John Kerry's rise in the 2004 Democratic caucuses and Rick Santorum's in the 2012 Republican caucuses as prime examples. "It's not that unusual," she said.

"So you can see why I would not jump to declare we know how this is going to turn out."

Selzer explained that the Iowa caucuses can be especially topsy-turvy and hard to predict because voters are careful to consider all of the candidates before making their final decision. Especially in such a large field, the "feast" of different candidates are constantly accessible to voters, allowing Iowans to size them up again and again. "At least a quarter in our last poll said they'd had a personal interaction with a candidate. . . It's unlike anyplace else on the planet, except perhaps New Hampshire," Selzer said.

Iowa is also unique because, at each caucus location, attendees must realign to a different candidate if their chosen contender has less than 15% support in the room. "I think what sets Iowa apart most is that on caucus night, you may be asked to change your mind," Selzer said. "So people keep an open mind to more than one candidate," adding to the unpredictability of the entire process.

On caucus night, after months of seeking to predict the final vote, Selzer will be watching the returns flood in. She never participates in the caucuses herself as a matter of principle.

The legendary pollster said she would be particularly interested in watching the competing sets of results that will be reported this year, and how they might diverge. (For the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party will be announcing not just the delegate totals won by each candidate but also the raw vote totals after standings after the initial and final alignments in each caucus.)

"You'll have three sets of numbers, so there could be multiple winners," Selzer forewarned.

But after beating around the bush for around 40 minutes or so, I couldn't help but ask Selzer the question she must get must often: who, then, does she think will walk away from Iowa a victor?

Selzer is famously guarded about her personal opinions and predictions, preferring to let her data speak for itself. "I will not tell you," she demurred.

Does she at least have someone in mind as the likely winner?

"I will not tell you."

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