Polling Power: J. Ann Selzer and the Iowa Poll
When you’re on your way to visit one of the most accurate polling firms in the United States, you generally don’t expect it to be housed in a cottage-like office next to the Tres Amigos Mexican restaurant in Valley Junction. At least I wasn’t expecting that when I drove to Selzer & Company a few weeks ago.
For a company that conducts the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, I was expecting the firm’s staff to consist of at least a handful or people. Not quite. When I entered the office, I quickly saw everyone who worked there: President J. Ann Selzer and her office manager/research assistant Michelle Yeoman.
“We say we’re small but mighty,” Selzer said.
It’s impossible to argue when you glance at Selzer’s accolades. Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, calls her one of the best pollsters in the business. To back it up, his site gave Selzer & Company an A+ accuracy rating, making it one of only three firms out of dozens to receive that distinction. So when it comes to pollsters, finding a better one than Selzer is about as likely as me finishing the New York City Marathon after a week of exclusively eating Hostess Cupcakes.
But still, there have been doubters. Last fall, Selzer, already with a well-known reputation for accuracy, received criticism after the Iowa Poll concerning the Bruce Braley–Joni Ernst Senate race had Ernst winning by 7 percent, a stark contrast from all the other polls projecting a tighter race. One Braley staffer even publicly questioned Selzer’s credibility. Sure, you want to at least downplay the poll putting you seven points in the hole, but I would’ve maybe avoided going after someone’s proven capability. (Especially when Braley ended losing by 8.5 points. Oops.)
Selzer also faced some criticism/eyebrow raising in 2008 when the final pre-caucuses Iowa Poll had Barack Obama leading Hillary Clinton by 7 percent. She told the story of Jerry Crawford, a friend and former client who worked (and still does) for Clinton. Crawford told her he had knocked on 99 doors and just could not find the Obama support the poll indicated.
But Crawford had focused on diehards — Democrats who had caucused in the past. He did not account for the landslide of first-time caucusgoers, many of whom would support Obama, and Clinton finished third — more than 8 points behind Obama — in the caucuses that saw a 98 percent jump in turnout.
“If you model based on the past, you would have missed all of those first-time caucusgoers and so you might think Hillary Clinton was going to win by a substantial margin because she led with people who had caucused before,” Selzer said. “We don’t model it based on things that have happened before.”
Reliance on the past is understandable. God knows baseball commentators like to look back on how two teams fared against each other in June when they meet again in the postseason. They want to search for clues to try to predict who will advance in the playoffs. But aspects of the teams likely changed since their last meeting, just like the candidates and campaigns changed between 2004 and 2008.
Selzer said anyone who will caucus on Feb. 1 has an equal chance of appearing in her poll, so she selects from the pool of Iowa registered voters. She acknowledged that it isn’t perfect because 17-year olds can caucus, but it’s worked so far. “Likely caucusgoers” is the key term, including everyone who might show up on caucus night, not just those who’ve gone before. For example, Bob from Clive has caucused the past three cycles. Great for him — he’s killin’ it as an engaged citizen — but his answers get no extra weight when he’s included in the Iowa Poll.
“If you start, as the principle investigator, saying this is what you think things are going to look like, well, they throw you out of the science academy,” Selzer said. “You just can’t do that.”
Selzer directed the Iowa Poll when she worked at the Register. She left the paper in 1992 to start Selzer & Company. When the Register decided to outsource the poll in 1997, her company won the bid and she’s been the driving force behind it since.
The process behind the poll isn’t incredibly complicated. Selzer meets with the Iowa Poll committee, a collection of editorial staff and reporters from the Register and its polling partner Bloomberg Politics, and they discuss what they want the poll to ask. It’s not simply a “Who would you vote for?” survey with favorability ratings.
“What would help us understand why certain candidates are polling better than others?” Selzer said.
Bernie Sanders, for instance, gained some ground in Thursday’s poll, but 60 percent of those polled said they were less supportive of Sanders because he had voted against background checks and waiting periods for gun owners. That surely isn’t the only reason he’s behind Clinton, but 60 percent is no small number. It’s obviously a factor.
After the committee meeting, Selzer returns to her office to compile the questionnaire, a process that sometimes requires a night’s sleep.
“I’m a good muller,” Selzer said. “It is always sort of helpful if I wait overnight before I do things because things will occur to me, and then we’ll clean that up, send it off.”
The revised final questionnaire and calling list are sent to the phone bank in Utah, and the poll is put “in the field,” as Josh Lyman would say. The data trickles in, and reporters call the people who were polled and agreed to be reached for comment — “talkers.” Selzer keeps a close eye on all of it, checking the stories and graphics before they are published. Reporters talk to her as well, and when they stop calling, the poll is finally done.
“Then we send the invoice, which is a good part of the process,” she said with a laugh.
Selzer, like basically every pollster ever, faces the reality of low response rates. There will always be someone who doesn’t think the poll was accurate because he or she was not polled. Her answer?
“For now, there appears to be a doppelgänger who thinks like you and answers like you and is your surrogate,” she said. “And that person will answer the phone.”
Selzer doesn’t just focus on polling in Iowa, and she’s not pigeonholed as a political pollster either. She’s done work for Fareway, The Boston Globe, Des Moines Public Schools and the American Cancer Society. She’s even polled on an election in Ghana and New Jersey senior citizens’ views on illicit drugs.
“It’s a huge blessing,” she said. “Three months from now, we could be doing something completely different.”
Cannon is a senior journalism and political science major from Kansas City. He interned this summer at the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S., The Hartford Courant, and he cares too much about the Kansas City Royals. Follow him on Twitter.