If you listen to leading national forecasters, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley and Governor Kim Reynolds are in no danger of losing this November. Inside Elections, the Cook Political Report, and Sabato's Crystal Ball all put Iowa's elections for Senate and governor in the "solid" or "safe" Republican category.
But last week, Mike Franken's Senate campaign released partial results from an internal poll showing the Democrat within striking distance of Grassley. And the only poll of the governor's race released this year showed Reynolds ahead of Democrat Deidre DeJear by just 8 points.
In past election cycles, media organizations commissioned more frequent political surveys. For instance, Survey USA tracked approval ratings for Iowa's senators and governor on a monthly basis during the 2000s.
Unfortunately, polling has been another casualty of newsroom budget cuts. While campaign coverage should not focus excessively on the horse race, occasional independent snapshots of public opinion are important. Otherwise conventional wisdom can lead to genuinely competitive races being overlooked.
A SINGLE-DIGIT SENATE RACE?
Franken's campaign commissioned the poll by Change Research, which surveyed 1,488 "likely general election voters" online between June 30 and July 4. The polling memo includes the question wording and information about the methodology as well as some of the top lines.
On the first ballot test, Grassley led Franken by 49 percent to 44 percent, with 7 percent of respondents undecided.
The next questions asked respondents about their general political preferences, and their three top priority issues among about 20 possibilities. The survey then asked about Grassley's job approval and whether respondents agreed with various positive statements about Grassley's attributes ("works for Iowa," "brings Iowa values to Washington, DC," etc.). Then respondents were asked about the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v Wade and how they assigned blame for "the rising costs of groceries and gas."
Next, the survey asked about policies such as legalizing marijuana, a federal law establishing a right to abortion, and various gun safety measures. Franken supports all of the policies listed in this section, but as is typical for a message-testing poll, the questionnaire did not mention the Democrat's position when asking about those issues.
The most interesting part came next. Respondents were shown the following statements about each candidate (presented in rotating order, so not all readers saw the same one first):
Born and raised in rural Sioux County, Michael Franken has dedicated his life to serving our nation and doing what’s right. Franken went from working as a farm hand to becoming a three-star Admiral who served 40 years in the U.S. Navy. He served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, overseeing numerous successful missions to protect our country including leading U.S. forces in Africa to fight terrorists and pirates. Now he’s running for U.S. Senate to keep America safe, strengthen our middle class by standing up to greedy corporate interests, and make healthcare more affordable. His Iowa upbringing taught him the values of community, family, faith, and rural life–values that will guide his service as our Senator in Washington, D.C.
Chuck Grassley lives on a family farm in New Hartford, Iowa, a short distance from the farmhouse where he was born in Butler County. In 1959, he was elected to the Iowa House to represent Butler County until 1975 when he was elected to represent Iowa’s third congressional district. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980. Every year since then, he visits each of Iowa’s 99 counties to give Iowans an opportunity to tell him what’s on their mind. In Washington D.C., Grassley has fought to keep spending in check, lower taxes for Iowa families and businesses, and strengthen our border.
Then the survey did another ballot test, which found Grassley leading Franken by just 47 percent to 46 percent, with 7 percent unsure. (The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.)
Furthermore, Franken has more room to grow his support, since he has only 71 percent name recognition, compared to 99 percent for Grassley. According to Change Research, 37 percent of those who favored Franken on the second ballot test identified as independents or Republicans.
Internal polls should always be viewed skeptically, because campaigns only release the numbers they want the public to see. This memo is missing a lot of potentially useful information, such as Grassley's approval numbers, which issues are at the top of respondents' minds, how the voters assign blame for inflation, and what they think about the Supreme Court overturning Roe.
That said, several factors lend credibility to the Change Research poll. The sample looks like it's in the ballpark for an Iowa midterm electorate (28 percent Democrats, 39 percent Republicans, 32 percent independents). The respondents favored Donald Trump over Joe Biden by 51 percent to 43 percent in the 2020 election, which is close to the result. Biden's approval is way underwater (33 percent favorable, 59 percent unfavorable), which is in line with recent Iowa polls by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom. In other words, Franken's not doing better than expected thanks to a sample skewed toward Democrats.
It would be helpful to see a pollster not connected to a campaign take a look at this race. The Des Moines Register has sometimes commissioned Iowa polls in July of election years. They don't announce their schedule in advance, though; we may not see Selzer's take on this race until September. The political website FiveThirtyEight gave Change Research a B- in its 2021 pollster ratings; Selzer & Co got an A+.
If Grassley's re-elect number is really below 50 percent, it would be hard to argue that Iowa's Senate race is not competitive. The incumbent still carries many advantages into the campaign, from name ID to more cash for statewide advertising. But a single-digit lead over a Democratic challenger is by definition not a "safe" or "solid" Republican position.
UPDATE: The Des Moines Register published a new Selzer poll on July 16, showing Grassley leading Franken by 47 percent to 39 percent. "Grassley has not polled below 50% in a head-to-head contest since October 1980, before he went on to defeat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. John Culver," Stephen Gruber-Miller noted. His job approval number was 46 percent.
NO RECENT SNAPSHOT OF GOVERNOR'S RACE
Without question, DeJear faces an uphill battle against Reynolds. The latest financial disclosures from the campaigns showed that Reynolds had more than $4.8 million cash on hand in late May, while the challenger had about $418,000 in the bank. Reynolds can also command media attention almost any day of the week through pronouncements or official events that don't cost her campaign a dime. In addition, Republicans have a statewide voter registration advantage, while Democrats have won only three Iowa governor's races in the past five decades.
So it's understandable that forecasters see Reynolds as not seriously threatened.
But the only public poll of this race, taken more than four months ago, placed the governor in a less-than-commanding position. Selzer found Reynolds leading DeJear by 51 percent to 43 percent. Brianne Pfannenstiel reported for the Des Moines Register in March,
Pollster J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., called the results “surprising” because DeJear continues to have very low name recognition across the state. She said she would have expected a greater percentage of people to say they weren’t sure who they would vote for in November, given DeJear’s low visibility.
"Surprising" is an understatement. I've never seen anything like Selzer's finding that 43 percent of respondents would vote for DeJear over Reynolds, even though just 31 percent of the sample were familiar with the presumptive Democratic nominee. Pfannenstiel noted, "DeJear’s lack of name identification isn’t hurting her in a potential head-to-head matchup with Reynolds, according to the poll. Among those who say they would vote for DeJear, 61% say they do not know enough about her to form an opinion."
As I speculated in March, the governor's divisive leadership style appears to have produced a large "anyone but Reynolds" bloc of voters.
Since that Selzer poll was in the field, Reynolds has made news with more controversial actions, which are potentially quite unpopular with Iowans outside the Republican base. To name just a few:
- signing legislation that cuts unemployment benefits;
- signing a tax cut that is skewed toward the wealthiest taxpayers and corporations;
- going all-in for private school vouchers, even campaigning against sitting GOP lawmakers who resisted her plan;
- trying to reinstate a near-total abortion ban in Iowa, which was struck down in 2019.
Notably, the Reynolds campaign has not announced any findings from surveys it commissioned this year. That doesn't prove the race is competitive, of course. On the other hand, if the governor were way ahead of her challenger, or comfortably above a 50 percent re-elect number, I would expect her team to brag about it.
Poll findings should not unduly influence news reporting, let alone voter decisions. But if Iowa's races for Senate and governor are closer than most political observers assume, then the public is poorly-served by coverage implying these campaigns are a foregone conclusion.