Mark Blumenthal | January 1, 2008
Topics: 2008 , Iowa , The 2008 Race
The much anticipated final poll from the Des Moines Register and Selzer & Company is out. They conducted interviews from December 27-30 with 800 likely Democratic caucus goers and 800 likely Republican caucus goers (those who say they "definitely or probably will attend" the caucuses). The Register has full coverage of the Democratic results, the Republican results, leading issues, an overview from columnist David Yepsen and a description of their methods.
The Register's lead for the Democrats:
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has widened his lead in Iowa over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards heading into Thursday's nominating caucuses [...] Obama's rise is the result in part of a dramatic influx of first-time caucusgoers, including a sizable bloc of political independents. Both groups prefer the Illinois senator in what has been a very competitive campaign.
Obama was the choice of 32 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers, up from 28 percent in the Register's last poll in late November, while Clinton, a New York senator, held steady at 25 percent and Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, was virtually unchanged at 24 percent.
Next, the Republicans:
Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister riding a wave of support from fundamentalist Christians, tops Mitt Romney for first place [....] In a battle of former governors from Arkansas and Massachusetts, Huckabee leads Romney, 32 percent to 26 percent. [....]
The new poll [also] shows a resurgent Arizona Sen. John McCain grabbing third place in the Republican race for the first-in-the-nation caucuses. McCain tallies support from 13 percent in the poll -- a 6-point improvement since late November.
The two polls stories, plus Yepsen's column, are well worth the click. Unlike the last two releases, the stories include tables of results by demographic groups.
A few quick observations. What "will raise some eyebrows among party pros," as Yepsen puts it, is the fact that a "whopping" 60% of the Democratic caucus goers say this will be their first caucus and only 54% say they are Democrats (40% identify as independents and 5% as Republicans). Compare these results to what other polls have shown earlier in 2007 and it becomes clear that this Register sample predicts a very different set of caucus participants than in years past.
Yepsen also notes that if pollster Ann Selzer had weighted the new results by party identification "to look like they did in 2004, Clinton could beat Obama 31 percent to 29 percent."
However, one of the most critical challenges in polling the Iowa Caucuses is that no one knows for certain who will turn out this week. When different surveys produce results that vary beyond the margin of sampling error, their differing conceptions of the likely caucus goers explain most of the variation.
So is the Register/Selzer poll right or wrong about a the potential for "a dramatic influx of first-time caucus goers" and independents on the Democratic side? I know our comments section, and the political blogosphere, will be alive with speculation, but we really will not know for certain until Thursday night.
What I can say is that when we polled campaign and media pollsters last week, the Des Moines Register and Selzer were the runaway winners as the most trusted Iowa poll. My hunch is that their reputation results partly from an awareness of their past success and methods but mostly to an appreciation of what is at stake for the pollsters. Selzer is a Des Moines based researcher, and this survey is easily the most important her company has conducted since their last pre-caucus poll in 2004. Under those circumstances, other pollsters trust her to sweat the details.
Having said that, we all know that the conditions for survey research are treacherous this week, and even the best pollsters (and methods) are fallible even under the best of conditions. But with everything on the line, Selzer has done what good pollsters are trained to do: She put her trust in her methods and the results they produced, even when those results contradict conventional wisdom.
Update: The Edwards campaign issues a critical analysis of the Des Moines Register/Selzer poll.
Update II: Another critical assessment from the Clinton campaign.
Update III: New polls were also released late yesterday by InsiderAdvantage (showing Clinton and Edwards leading Obama) and early this morning by CNN/ORC (showing Clinton with more support than Obama but within the margin of sampling error). We will have full poll updates later this morning.
Update V: Kaus also notes that the 2004 Register poll "came out only a day before the caucuses--not three days before." True, but although the Register poll was released on the day before the Caucuses (Sunday, 1/18), they completed interviewing two days earlier (surveys conducted over four days, from 1/13-16, Tuesday to Friday). So that poll had the same three-day gap as this one.
One intriguing footnote: That final 2004 Register poll showed Kerry with 26%, Edwards with 23%, Dean with 20%, Gephardt with 18%. On the same Sunday, Zogby/Reuters also released a three-day rolling average tracker with fresher interviews (conducted Thursday to Saturday, 1/15-17) but with Edwards running five points lower (Kerry 24%, Dean 23%, Gephardt 19%, Edwards 18%). Edwards had 17-18% over the nights of interviewing that coincided with the Register poll.
Now to be fair, Zogby did show Edwards rising at the rate of a little less than one percentage point a day over the week leading up to their Sunday release. However, on the final Zogby release, on Monday (interviews conducted Friday to Sunday, 1/16-18), Edwards suddenly jumped 3-points (showing Kerry at 25%, Dean 22%, Edwards 21%, Gephardt 18%). Given the 3-day rolling average, the Edwards number on the final night of interviewing had to be in the 25-30% range. Such a result is plausible, given that Edwards received 26% on the network entrance poll, and Edwards was certainly surging in the campaign's final week. But draw your your own conclusions as to why the Register caught more of the Edwards surge earlier.
PS: Happy New Year!