J. Ann Selzer, acclaimed political pollster, talks about the Iowa Poll

Selzer & Co. president tells journalists about Elizabeth Warren's climb, Bernie Sanders' slide and whether there's room for another candidate to seize undecideds

Jennifer Konfrst (left), who teaches public relations and strategic political communication courses at Drake University,
Jennifer Konfrst (left), who teaches public relations and strategic political communication courses at Drake University, leads a Q&A session Sept. 23 in Des Moines with J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., one of the nation’s most accurate political pollsters. Selzer spoke with journalists covering the 2020 Iowa caucuses. (Erin Jordan/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — J. Ann Selzer, considered one of the most accurate pollsters in American politics, has overseen the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll since the late 1980s.

Selzer spoke Sept. 23 at Drake University in Des Moines to journalists from Iowa and across the country who plan to cover the 2020 Iowa caucuses. Two Gazette reporters attended the caucus coverage training put on by Drake and Poynter.

Selzer, president of Selzer & Co. in West Des Moines, fielded questions about many topics, including how she has honed her polling methodology over the years and what the newest Iowa Poll, released Sept. 21, says about the 2020 Democratic race.

Q: What is the Iowa Poll?

A: “It’s the longest continuously running statewide newspaper poll. The idea was to help the journalists to know what was going on with the electorate. Reporters on their own will have a hard time sussing out where the electorate is if you don’t have something that will quantify that for you. One thing a poll does for the caucus-going universe is hold up a mirror. It can give them new questions to ask of candidates.”

Q: The Sept. 21 poll results gave Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren the lead over former Vice President Joe Biden. But there still are a lot of undecided voters. Some of those numbers are seemingly at odds.

A: “Her number is 22 percent in the horse race. However, her footprint (people who list Warren as first or second choice or say they are actively considering her) is 71 percent. You put that against 63 percent (undecided). That Venn diagram is looking kind of interesting.”

Q: How late is too late for another candidate to capture some of the undecided vote?

A: “On the Republican side in 2012, we had Ron Paul running and presumed to be the leader. The first day after we had the first night of interviewing (for the Iowa Poll), Rick Santorum got 10 percent. It wasn’t until the final poll that he was in double digits. He did not win our poll — he was challenging (Mitt) Romney — but he was eventually declared the winner of our caucuses. Iowa is too welcoming of newcomers to predict a drop-dead date.

Q: Is there a buried lead in the latest Iowa Poll?


A: “What people I don’t think are paying as much attention to is the decline in (Vermont Sen.) Bernie Sanders. One of the key findings is that we asked if people caucused in 2016, had they been for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. A plurality of people who stood up for Bernie Sanders in 2016 now support Elizabeth Warren. He comes in second, so he’s keeping some of that. If you don’t have the majority with you and your message is the same, that’s a potential trouble spot.”

Q: If you go back to 2008, Annah (Backstrom Aschbrenner, USA Today 2020 campaign editor) had an anecdote about you feeling affirmed when you drove past a polling site and saw so many young people. How did you realize first-time voters were energized?

A: “Our final poll said 60 percent would be first-time caucusgoers. I looked at that number and played around with it. Our finding that Barack Obama was going to win with a comfortable margin was pretty robust. We decided we were going to go with it. I don’t know that we saw anything in previous caucuses that alerted us it would be a lot of first-time voters. We will never go back to not asking that (Are you a first-time caucusgoer?). People thought I made it up, that I made a model that said it would be 60 percent. I assumed nothing. This is what my data told me. So far it has worked.”

Q: Do you see that trend of young caucusgoers continuing?

A: “It’s not a big number in this current poll. It’s 17 to 20 percent who say this will be their first caucus.”

Q: How do you get enough respondents with fewer people using landlines and people not picking up calls from unknown numbers?

A: “We have not found a difficulty that is severe enough that we have not been able to be accurate so far. We get cellphone numbers and match it to the Secretary of State’s list to have as many numbers as we can possibly have. We have ways of dialing in so we’re dialing into that list stratified by age so we’re making the best shot we can of being representative of younger people. We’re going to take our best shot. There are plenty of other polling organizations that I wonder if they think they are taking their best shot.”

Q: Do you think late polls influence the election?

A: “If they do, who knows in which direction? There are a whole bunch of things influencing what is going to happen. It’s not like the only thing that is happening in the final days is a poll coming out. I personally don’t worry about it, and I give you permission not to worry about it.”

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