New Quinnipiac Poll Shows Sanders Inching Ahead of Clinton in Iowa

Posted: September 11, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: About the Caucuses

By David Redlawsk, Harkin Institute Fellow

Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and Director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling


It’s the beginning of the end for Hillary Clinton, right? That’s what the media seems to want to know in light of the new, September 11 2015 Quinnipiac Poll showing Bernie Sanders at 41% and Clinton at 40%. But before folks get too excited, a few caveats.

First, it is still nearly five months before the caucuses. There is a great deal of campaigning left to go. Even in Iowa, most voters are only somewhat aware something is going on.

Second, it is only one poll. And a huge question with this poll is the extent to it really represents those who will caucus. Trust me, I know from polling in 2007/08 that it is extraordinarily hard to determine this early whether a poll respondent is really a “likely” caucus goer. This is a critical point—only those who actually show up on a cold winter night to talk politics for a couple hours will matter in the end.

Looking at the Quinnipiac poll methodology makes me even less certain what it means so far. The sample was acquired by random digit dialing—that is, it is NOT based on lists of registered voters or, even better, those with a history of caucusing. Instead it relies in some form on people saying they will caucus. At this stage of the game, given the intense media coverage of Sanders, there are no doubt a lot of non-caucus goers who say they will show up included in this sample. I would guess such voters are much more likely to be in the Sanders camp than the Clinton camp right now.

Obviously, however, even a symbolic lead is a plus for Sanders; it increases his legitimacy as a candidate, despite his not actually being a Democrat. And it will allow the media to write a slew of “Clinton is in trouble” stories that will also help Sanders in the short term. But one overarching question is whether those who do routinely caucus—mostly activists who care about the Democratic Party as well as the presidency—will stay with Sanders as the caucus gets closer.
I don’t think this poll is particularly good or bad news for Republicans. One could actually argue that it is good for Clinton, forcing her to continue to focus on building a strong campaign. Again, the key is getting people out on caucus night, not winning in the polls. It also potentially sets Clinton up to “surprise” on caucus night. The story the media will tell on caucus night is not going to be about who wins, it will be about who does better or worse than expected. If the media narrative develops that Clinton is in trouble, and then she wins by some significant margin, well, that will shift the story pretty quickly.

So if I were advising the campaigns, I’d say the Clinton campaign shouldn’t panic, and the Sanders campaign shouldn’t celebrate. There is a very long road left to travel.