Iowa Pollster: Ann Selzer

J. Ann Selzer, Ph.D.
Selzer and Company
Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants and activists who are shaping American politics. A new poll out this week shows some movement by candidates in both parties. talked with Ann Selzer, the pollster who's conducted the Iowa Poll for nearly 20 years, to discuss what's shaking up this first-in-the-nation caucus state. You've been involved in producing The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll in every caucus but one since 1988. It's obviously notoriously difficult to poll for the caucuses because it's so hard to predict who will vote. What kinds of screening methods do you use in your poll to help make it accurate?

Ann Selzer: I don't know that the screening method is the magic. I think worrying about how we're actually selecting households might be. We work with the Secretary of State's Voter Registration List. And we call the independents as well as people who are registered with one of the main parties. Once we have them on the phone, we ask a three-part question about whether they'll vote: definitely, probably or probably not. And in the caucuses, we take both the definitely and the probably and use that analytically to help us understand the depth of candidate support. Your new Democratic Iowa Poll shows Edwards continuing to lead the race. What do you think is behind his quite durable front-runner status in Iowa?

Ann Selzer: I don't know if you remember four years ago, but John Edwards did the two things you have to do to win the caucus. And one is to organize, organize, organize. And the other is to get hot at the end. And he got quite hot at the end.

And a lot of Iowans sort of fell in love. And I mean that it was a very emotional reaction to his kind of candidacy. And our final poll in 2004, his surge was a lot stronger than Kerry's. He just had a farther distance to make up. So the conventional wisdom is had the caucuses been a week later, he might have won.

And he has really invested a lot of time in the state since then. He really credited Iowa with putting him on a national stage when he didn't look like he had much of a shot. And he has paid that back by giving a lot of attention to the state. It's within the margin of error, but your poll also shows Obama edging Hillary for second place.

Ann Selzer: They're very close. It's basically a tie.(1. see clarification below) Do you have any sense of what, if anything, is Hillary doing wrong? Or is it just too early to make any kind of a judgment?

Ann Selzer: There are some people who would say, "Good for her for not being first," because it puts you in a position where you can only go down. And it is so early. You know, this is probably the earliest we've taken a poll for a caucus in a while. There are many, many months to come. And, like I said, you want to get hot at the end.

So if you're spending all of your time trying to protect your first-place status, you really are distracted because there are so many candidates in the field, you're having to fend them all off. So for Iowa, I don't know that it's particularly bad news for Hillary to be where she is. She does have to figure out what her Iowa strategy is going to be and then execute on it. Iowa has a reputation, fairly or not, as a pretty anti-war, even pacifist state among its Democratic activists. How true is that reputation?

Ann Selzer: Well, I think it's clearly true. But I want you to keep in mind that Iowa sent more soldiers per capita to the Civil War, and probably every war since, than any other state. So when you talk about us being a peace state, it really doesn't put everything into perspective. Has it been a problem for Hillary in Iowa that she hasn't apologized for voting to authorize the war?

Ann Selzer: That's not just a problem in Iowa. In fact, that's the rhetorical mess that she's gotten herself into. And people have to say the focus really isn't on that vote and people will forget about it if she were to talk more about the future. While she has a very strong line about "If George Bush doesn't withdraw our troops, as president, I will," which she repeats ad infinitum, you know, at some point people want to say, "Exactly how are you going to do it that will solve all the other problems that we think would come from that?" And do you think the other two major Democrats are clearer on that?

Ann Selzer: Let me hold that one a second and say it's the same kind of mistake that Howard Dean made four years ago, which was that he kept talking about how he was against it, but he was not talking about what he would do about it.

Now, the other two, you know, they've got different things going for them. Obviously Edwards has chosen to renounce his vote and to apologize for it. I don't know that he has spelled out with great specificity what he would do in terms of international relations. And that's an area that I think especially Democrats want to hear about. How is it that you are going to address the world as leader of the United States, and how are you going to make things better for us and our position in the world? Your poll also shows Bill Richardson cracking into double digits just barely. How well do people know the Democratic candidates who are not the big three? In other words, does a Richardson or a Biden or a Dodd have the hope that as they get better known, their support could rise? Or are they just completely crowded out?

Ann Selzer: They have to do something to make an impact. Joe Biden was here in '88. I mean, he's still well known among the Democratic core, and the fact that he's just not doing very well, he didn't do all that well in '88. That's just kind of the way that works for him. Chris Dodd doesn't even register in our poll, and he spent a little bit of his time here. But he's really just such an unknown.

And to the extent that we have a whole mess of Senators in the field, you sort of go looking for, well, what is it that makes any of them different?

What Richardson has done is to address that head-on, and has gone on television with some ads that really talk about his resume, having two cabinet positions and being a governor of a state that's had to take a look at the immigration issue. And I think it's caused some Democrats to say, "You know what? Here's some competence where we may not have had some before."