Articles and Analysis


Iowa: 2% Under Age 25?

Topics: 2008 , Iowa , The 2008 Race

An attentive reader noticed my reference yesterday to David Yepsen's report that "only 2 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers" surveyed in the recent Des Moines Register poll "are under age 25." My reader asked simply, "is 2% under 25 a problem?" Put another way, my reader is asking, what is the expected age composition of "likely caucus goers" and how does this poll compare? Unfortunately, for reasons I'll explain below, that is a tough question to answer, although the 2% estimate does appear low in comparison to 2004.

Let's set aside for a moment the nearly impossible task of guessing the demographics of the voters that will turn out this coming January. Consider instead what ought to be a much easier question: What were the demographics of the Democratic caucus goers in 2004? Even that question, it turns out, leads to series of riddles.

The table below shows the age composition of the Democratic caucus participants measured in two ways. On the left, courtesy of the Iowa Democratic Party, we have the age composition of the actual participants, based on matching those who signed in at their local precincts to the list of registered voters provided by the Iowa Secretary of State (which includes the age of each voter). On the right is the age distribution of voters surveyed in the network "entrance poll."


The caucus goers interviewed in the entrance poll are significantly younger than those on the list of past caucus goers. But wait! The reported ages are (roughly) four years apart. The entrance poll shows the age of the respondent on Caucus day 2004, but the data from the voter list reflects the ages of 2004 participants as of today. In other words, those who were 17 to 24 years old in 2004 are now mostly age 21-25. So the 17-24 category in the age breakout on the left is missing at least half of those who were 17-24 four years ago (I don't have access to the file, and so cannot attempt to recalculate ages to reflect their age as of January 2004).

However, the four year shift in age does not appear to explain everything, and the roughly ten percentage point difference carries though to the over 50 category.

In thinking about the differences between these two age estimates, we should probably consider some of the potential shortcomings of both data sources.

Let's start with the entrance poll, conducted by the National Election Pool. In many ways, their procedures for the Iowa caucuses are similar to those used for election exit polls. They start with a random sample of precincts (50 in this case) and send interviewers out to each location with paper questionnaires to be filled out by randomly selected voters.

In Iowa, however, the unique nature of the Iowa caucuses require different procedures. Since the caucuses are meetings that begin at 6:30 p.m., all voters arrive shortly before that hour rather than streaming in throughout the day. The pollsters send two interviewers to each sampled Iowa caucus location with the task of gathering as many completed interviews as possible as the participants arrive. We call it an entrance poll since they interview voters on their way in.

Given the time crunch, they do not attempt to record the observed gender, race and approximate age of those who refuse to be interviewed. They also have no official headcount to compare to the precinct level result (results are based on estimated state delegates chosen and reflect two rounds of voting where the supporters of those with less than fifteen percent of the vote are forced to "realign" with a different candidate). So the pollsters cannot use their standard procedures to attempt to "correct" either the demographics at the precinct level (against their observations of all randomly selected voters) or the vote preferences of sampled voters (at sampled precincts or in the state as a whole).

Moreover, many of us learned in the aftermath of the 2004 exit pool controversies about a potential source of error that might introduce error into their age estimates. In 2004, at least, exit pollsters depended mostly on younger interviewers that had a much harder time completing interviews than their older colleagues. So the potential for a skew to younger respondents is real, especially without any record of the approximate age of voters that refuse to participate in the survey.

We should also consider that the adults streaming into each caucus location included some out of state organizers (most famously the thousands of young Howard Dean Perfect Storm volunteers) and others who could not participate in the caucus vote but may have been willing to fill out an exit poll questionnaire when approached.

Now consider the actual vote history data. The Iowa Democratic Party reports that 124,000 Iowans participated in the 2004 Democatic caucus, but at least three campaigns have confirmed for me that on the vaunted Voter Activation Network (VAN) list maintained by the Party, only about 95,000 voters are identified as 2004 caucus participants. What happened to the roughly one participant in four that seems to be missing?

I put that question to Carrie Giddins, the communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party. Here is her response:

1. There were some caucus goers from 2004 who did not sign in. In 2004, we had one of the largest caucuses in history and the sheer volume of people was more than some precincts had experience dealing with. Because of this, there were caucus goers who did not get fully signed in before they caucused and therefore we did not have enough information to identify them after the fact.

2. The New Democratic Caucus Attendee forms required individuals to write down information about themselves so that we could identify those caucus goers after the caucuses were over. Not all of that information was completed in its entirety and some of the completed forms were simply illegible. This left us no way to identify those caucus goers in our records.

3. Some caucus goers may not have been entered into our records due to data entry errors.

4. The VAN is a dynamic environment. It is not intended to show historically what the attendance was at the 2004 Caucus. Therefore, anyone who has been removed from the SOS rolls, including people who are deceased or who have moved, is no longer included in the VAN. At this time, if we turn off the suppressions that we have internally in the VAN the number of caucus goers goes up by about 7,000 people, so the number of 2004 caucus goers whose status may have changed in 4 years to the extent that they have been removed from the SOS is likely not an insignificant amount of this discrepancy.

Chris Sullentrop's 2004 dispatch for Slate confirms that in one Des Moines precinct, there were "so many" new and first-time caucus participants "that the organizers ran out of forms to register them."

I should add here that least one 2008 campaign tells me they consider the reported 124,000 turnout too optimistic. They believe the real total was closer to 105,000.

But either way, we can easily hypothesize a number of reasons why the past caucus goers identified on the VAN list may be older than those who actually participated. Based on the accounts above, it appears as if the voters that never signed in were more likely to be first time caucus goers (who tend to be younger). Other missing voters may have registered elsewhere since (and more mobile voters tend to be younger). On the other hand, those 2004 participants purged because they are no longer living probably skewed older.

So what is the precise age composition in 2004? We have a general sense, but precise percentages are unknowable. What is the "right" percentage of 17-24 year olds? Your guess is as good as mine, although it was probably somewhere in the range of 6% to 14%. As such, the 2% on the Register poll does look a bit low by comparison.

But even if we knew the precise age composition for the 2004 caucuses, we would have only a general sense of the potential demographic composition this time around. Only 60,000 Iowa Democrats participated in the 2000 caucuses, so using their demographics as a model would have been misleading four years later.

We also know that several campaigns are spending heavily to identify and motivate potential supporters among the hundreds of thousands of registered voters (and potential registrants) that have not participated before. Those they persuade to caucus will not make up their minds about participating until the final weeks of the campaign. Thus, when it comes to younger Iowa voters, as reader "FlyOnTheWall" put it earlier today, "we don't have the first f---ng clue what voters younger than 25 are likely to do."


If you remember nothing else about this post, remember this: Since late July, we have seen 13 different Democratic polls in Iowa taken by eleven different pollsters. Each pollster does things differently, so we have eleven different conceptions of Iowa's "likely caucus goers." Take a look at our Iowa chart (above), take into account the up-or-down, overlapping spread in the results for each candidate, and the only sensible conclusion is that Iowa is currently a competitive three-way race. The varying conceptions of the likely electorate create a margin of potential real world error far more important here than mere sampling error. And of course the results may look very different in early January.




I miss Eric Severeid. (in some circles he was nicknamed Eric Several sides)


Post a comment

Please be patient while your comment posts - sometimes it takes a minute or two. To check your comment, please wait 60 seconds and click your browser's refresh button. Note that comments with three or more hyperlinks will be held for approval.