Pollster Ann Selzer: I'm fine with being "demoted to 'silver standard'"

The Des Moines Register’s longtime pollster Ann Selzer identified the surge of first-time Democratic caucus-goers who would carry Barack Obama to victory in 2008. Her final poll before the 2012 Republican caucuses caught the strong upward momentum for Rick Santorum. Her last snapshot before this year’s caucuses for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics correctly saw a close race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with fewer first-time participants than eight years ago.

But Selzer’s view of the GOP campaign was unfortunately off the mark in several respects: putting Donald Trump ahead of Ted Cruz, underestimating turnout overall and particularly among evangelicals, and missing the late swing toward Marco Rubio that some political observers sensed by watching the campaign on the ground.

Yesterday Selzer commented to David Weigel of the Washington Post,

“In all the press I did in the last two days—and it was a LOT — I talked about the fluidity,” she wrote in an email. “Up to the last moment — including inside the caucus room — campaigns and supporters are working for change! Surprise! Big evangelical turnout — no doubt the biggest.” […]

“Trump was disliked by vast majority of caucus-goers who didn’t support him,” Selzer said. “Bernie’s extraordinary strength was with first-timers, who showed up in above-projected numbers. […]

“If I’m demoted to ‘silver standard,’ I’m fine with that,” she said. “I was never all that comfortable with the hype.”

Selzer can take some comfort in knowing that the last ten Iowa polls released before the caucuses all put Trump ahead of Cruz. The most recent poll to show Cruz leading was the Iowa State University/WHO-TV survey, which uses an unconventional screen for likely caucus-goers. But Iowa State/WHO understated support for Trump and Rubio. Given the tremendous difficulties involved in polling the Iowa caucuses, especially on the Democratic side, we should expect some misses, even from the top professionals in the field. As the presidential campaign progresses, here’s hoping political journalists will focus less on poll-driven horse race coverage.

UPDATE: Selzer did some "Tuesday morning quarterbacking" of her final poll in today’s Des Moines Register. I enclose excerpts below.

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How the Iowa caucuses work, part 5: A "pollster's nightmare"

Continuing a six-part series. Part 1 covered basic elements of the caucus system, part 2 explained why so many Iowans can’t or won’t attend their precinct caucus, part 3 discussed how Democratic caucus math can affect delegate counts, and part 4 described how precinct captains help campaigns.

Measuring the horse race ahead of the Iowa caucuses poses special challenges, particularly on the Democratic side. Those problems affect even the Des Moines Register’s longtime pollster Ann Selzer, whom FiveThirtyEight.com has given an A+ grade and called "the best pollster in politics."

Follow me after the jump to see why polling expert Mark Blumenthal has described the caucuses as a "pollster’s nightmare."

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Weekend open thread: Last Des Moines Register caucus poll and a shady Ted Cruz mailer

Photo of a Ted Cruz supporter’s car spotted in Davenport on January 30; shared with the photographer’s permission.

The final Iowa caucus poll by Selzer & Co. for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics shows a tight race on the Democratic side and Donald Trump retaking the lead from Ted Cruz among likely Republican caucus-goers. Key findings and excerpts from the Register’s write-ups on the poll are after the jump.

Ann Selzer is "the best pollster in politics," Clare Malone wrote in a must-read profile for FiveThirtyEight.com this week, which explained Selzer’s methods and "old-school rigor." One key part of her "A+" methodology is starting from a list of registered voters, rather than using random digit dialing to reach Iowans by phone. Nate Cohn pointed out that Iowa polls drawing respondents from a registered voter list have tended to produce better results for Hillary Clinton, while surveys using random digit dialing have produced the best numbers for Bernie Sanders. Selzer also uses a simpler likely voter/likely caucus-goer screen than many other pollsters.

Bleeding Heartland guest author fladem showed yesterday that the Iowa caucus results have sometimes been noticeably different from the last polls released. Front-runners have often seen their lead shrink, while fast-rising contenders have "come from nowhere." I am standing by my prediction that the structure of the Iowa Democratic caucuses, where only delegate counts matter, favors Hillary Clinton and will allow her to outperform her poll numbers on Monday night. Speaking of which, there’s still time to enter Bleeding Heartland’s Iowa caucus prediction contest; post a comment with your guesses before 6 pm central time on February 1.

Last spring I was sure Cruz would peak in Iowa too soon and crash before the caucuses. Campaign news from October through December convinced me that I was wrong, and I still believe more in Cruz’s ground game than in Trump’s. However, the Cruz campaign is starting to look desperate, shifting its advertising to attack Marco Rubio instead of Trump, and sending out a deceptive mailer, which implied that Republicans guilty of a "voting violation" could improve their "score" by showing up at the caucuses. I enclose below several links on the controversy and a statement from Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate denouncing the mail piece, which "misrepresents the role of my office, and worse, misrepresents Iowa election law."

Pate’s predecessor, Matt Schultz, is chairing Cruz’s Iowa campaign and defended the mailing as "common practice to increase voter turnout." As Gavin Aronsen discussed at the new website Iowa Informer, it’s rich for onetime "voter fraud" crusader Schultz to be "actively defending a purposefully misleading mailer." The hypocrisy confirms my view that Schultz and Cruz are a political match made in heaven.

Governor Terry Branstad will introduce Chris Christie at a campaign stop today but won’t officially endorse the New Jersey governor. Several people with close ties to Branstad are active supporters of Christie, who has been stuck at 3 percent in the Register’s polling for months.

Final note: I’m so happy for all the volunteers who are able to knock doors in near-perfect (for January) weather during these last few days of the campaign. Weather conditions leading up to the 2008 caucuses were terrible.

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Front Runners Beware

Thanks to fladem for this historical perspective on late shifts in Iowa caucus-goers’ preferences. If you missed his earlier posts, check out A deep dive into Iowa Caucus History and Iowa Polling 45 days out: Let the Buyer REALLY beware. -promoted by desmoinesdem

This is a continuation of an article I wrote about Iowa polling in November. At the time I noted how unpredictable the Iowa Caucuses are. This article is going to look at the last 48 hours. There are two lessons you can draw:

Front Runners Beware

Expect someone to come from nowhere

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Clinton making tactical error as Iowa polls show Sanders in striking distance

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has wisely avoided attacking Bernie Sanders these past nine months. But the front-runner’s tactics are changing as multiple Iowa polls show Sanders within striking distance or a little ahead in Iowa only a few weeks before the February 1 caucuses. Clinton would do better making the case that she is a stronger and more battle-tested general election candidate. Attacking Sanders on gun control and especially on health care reform could backfire with Democrats who are undecided or not firmly committed.

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