Strange gatekeeping in first Des Moines Register/CNN Iowa caucus poll

A little more than a year before Iowa Democrats will start the process of selecting a challenger to face President Donald Trump, Selzer & Co has polled likely Democratic caucus-goers for the Des Moines Register, CNN, and Mediacom. Brianne Pfannenstiel wrote up the key findings from the survey of 455 Iowans "who say they will definitely or probably participate in the 2020 Democratic caucuses."

The toplines were not surprising, but I was baffled by some of the choices on which candidates to include.

Polls this early in a campaign say more about name recognition than anything else. As one would expect, the two best-known potential contenders lead the field: 32 percent of respondents named former Vice President Joe Biden as their first choice, and 19 percent named Senator Bernie Sanders. Biden is the second choice for another 18 percent and 14 percent say the same about Sanders.

Iowa Democrats appear to be "Beto-curious"; 11 percent are inclined to support Representative Beto O'Rourke, who nearly defeated Senator Ted Cruz this year, and 12 percent named O'Rourke as their second choice.

Considering first and second choices, three other candidates hit double digits in the poll: Senator Elizabeth Warren (8 percent first choice, 10 percent second choice), Senator Kamala Harris (5 percent first choice, 6 percent second choice), and Senator Cory Booker (4 percent first choice, 7 percent second choice).

You can find results for all 20 candidates in the document posted at the end of Pfannenstiel's write-up.

Sign of the strange times we live in: even that very long list omitted some who are serious about seeking the Democratic nomination.

Selzer didn't ask respondents about former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, Senator Jeff Merkley, Representatives Tim Ryan and Tulsi Gabbard, or best-selling author Marianne Williamson. According to Iowa Starting Line's tracker of potential presidential candidate trips, O'Malley has visited Iowa nine times since the 2016 general election, assisting candidates around the state. Merkley had staff helping some Iowa candidates this fall and will make his ninth trip here as one of the headliners for Progress Iowa's December 20 holiday party in Des Moines. Ryan has come to Iowa six times, Williamson five times, and Gabbard four times.

Perhaps not all of those Democrats will run for president, but each is more likely to compete than, say, former Attorney General Eric Holder, who hasn't come to Iowa during the last two years but was named in Selzer's poll. Senator Sherrod Brown was also listed, despite having made no visits to Iowa. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper have each visited Iowa once.

When I asked about the poll's selection criteria, Des Moines Register executive editor Carol Hunter responded,

It was a combination of factors, from national prominence to Iowa visits to groundwork laid. We went 20 deep, which is a lot to ask poll participants to respond to. If Ryan, Merkley and others continue to put in time raising their profile here, we'll include them in the future.

How can someone claim O'Malley, who campaigned extensively here before the 2016 caucuses, hasn't laid enough groundwork to be considered a serious contender for 2020? Merkley and Ryan have clearly invested enough in Iowa to warrant inclusion too--certainly more than Brown, Holder, and Garcetti.

Probably the toplines would not have changed meaningfully with a different list of candidates. Biden and Sanders would still be leading the pack on the strength of their nearly-universal name ID.

Nevertheless, this survey is a reminder that editorial decisions by news organizations can affect results from seemingly scientific opinion polls.

Few Iowa Democrats I've spoken with are committed to a presidential candidate. I won't take Iowa caucus polls seriously until next summer, when the field will be set and more activists will pick a favorite.

Any comments about the next presidential race are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Representative John Delaney may want to reconsider his presidential bid. He has visited all 99 Iowa counties during 20 trips to our state and spent at least $1.5 million to air more than 3,000 television commercials here. Yet the Des Moines Register/CNN poll found 1 percent of respondents named Delaney as their first choice and zero percent ranked him second.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention one odd finding. About 28 percent of respondents said they would consider attending a GOP caucus in 2020 if some Republican challenges Trump for the nomination. That makes me question whether the respondent pool really reflects likely Democratic caucus-goers.

Some 49 percent of respondents said "the right person to defeat Donald Trump" would be "more of a seasoned political hand," while just 36 percent said "more of a political newcomer," and 15 percent were unsure. In addition, 54 percent said it was more important to them that the Iowa caucus winner be someone "with a strong chance" of beating Trump, while 40 percent said it was more important for the winner to be someone "who shares your positions on major issues." I suspect both findings are related to the fact that Iowa voters skew old--including those who participate in Democratic primaries.

DECEMBER 17 UPDATE: Natasha Korecki of Politico was first to report on a new Focus on Rural America poll of Iowa Democrats by David Binder Research. Toplines: Biden 30 percent, Sanders 13 percent, O'Rourke 11 percent, Senator Amy Klobuchar 10 percent, Warren 9 percent, Harris 7 percent, Booker 6 percent, five other candidates at 3 percent or lower. (This poll also did not test O'Malley, Merkley, Ryan, Gabbard, or Williamson.)

The same pollster surveyed Iowans in September but did not include O'Rourke or Klobuchar. In the new poll, support for Warren and Biden dropped by 7 percent each.

This finding strikes me as most significant, and it tracks with my informal conversations with Iowa Democrats who caucused for Bernie in 2016: "Only 30% of those who state they caucused for Sanders in 2016 are saying they will be with him in 2020, as a majority show interest in other candidates in the vastly greater potential pool to choose from." Among respondents who identified themselves as 2016 Sanders caucus-goers, 22 percent favor Biden, 10 percent Warren, 10 percent O'Rourke, 7 percent Harris, 6 percent Klobuchar, 3 percent each for Booker and John Kerry

If Sanders runs for president again, he will not do nearly as well in a crowded field as he did in 2016 as the only viable alternative to Hillary Clinton.

  • Thanks for this revealing post

    I'm the kind of Democrat who votes in every election and donates to candidates sometimes, but often skips caucuses and political news. And even I am somewhat familiar with Martin O'Malley. I know more about him than I do about Beto, Kamala, or Cory, and I got a mailer from his campaign this month. Why is he being left out? "Strange gatekeeping" is right.

    One reason I know about O'Malley is because his environmental record is good, especially for a governor. His work is one of the reasons the Chesapeake Bay is making serious water quality progress. He is the opposite of Kim "Keeping The Dead In 'Dead Zone'" Reynolds. O'Malley got a B+ from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

  • Not So Strange

    Living proof that there are crucial constituencies around the state that the Register devalues via dismissive framing or outright neglect. Merkley has done extensive grassroots outreach (through IowaCCI and other channels) but again, neither the Register nor BigDems are inclined to put that sort of outreach on their radar).
    I don't want any more manipulated 'winnowing' of what is a very interesting field. DMRegister, do YOUR homework. Get out of your normal, deeply rutted source-paths and talk to more people and organizations now off your radar.
    ..(wakes up and realizes he's talking about the Gannett-DMRegister....)

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