On The Ground In Iowa, Pollsters And Voters Undecided On Democratic Race

Jan 22, 2016

VPR reporters and producers are currently in Iowa in advance of the state caucuses. The team will be reporting from the Hawkeye State, talking with voters and volunteers.

Reporter Annie Russell caught up with VPR's Patti Daniels, who's currently in Des Moines.

You attended a Hillary Clinton campaign event yesterday in Iowa City. How was it?

Iowa City is a big university town. It favors liberal political tendencies and there are a ton of students, but there were pretty diverse demographics in the room for this rally. About 1,500 people turned out, and a lot of them actually were there to see the singer Demi Lovato, who performed and spoke in favor of Hillary Clinton.

Clinton spoke for just about five minutes and it was really to rally the base, "get out to caucus, sign up to volunteer."

Our team also got a chance at the event to talk with some voters about who they're favoring in the race between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Some people in the room were still undecided. Since they have the opportunity to see a lot of candidates, they show up [at these events] to take it all in and then make their choice late in the game. But many people in the room were very clearly in Secretary Clinton's camp.

One of the voters I spoke with, Kaylyn Bedder of Burlington, Iowa, is a student at the University of Iowa. When we spoke she said she’s leaning toward Clinton, but she's wavering. She is one of those people who is more interested in reality and pragmatism over the kind of the aspirational dreams of some of the Bernie Sanders supporters. But Bedder said Sanders does appeal to the passion many young people have, and that's attractive to her.

We also asked Bedder whether Martin O'Malley figured into her calculus in any way. She said she actually liked a lot of what he had to say in the last debate but overall he just wasn't registering with her.

Today you got a chance to talk with an expert about everyone's favorite topic: polling data. And you learned something really interesting about Iowa Democrats who self-identify as socialists.

Anne Selzer is one of the go-to public opinion researchers in Iowa. Her polls tend to be extremely rigorous and highly predictive of outcomes. Among other polls that she runs, she recently released a set of data that asked likely caucus-goers, both Republican and Democrat, to weigh themselves on several different characteristics. One that she asked about was “socialist.”

Anne Selzer, a well-regarded pollster in Iowa. Her polls are known for being extremely rigorous and highly predictive. She spoke with VPR's Patti Daniels about this year's Democratic contest.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

Forty-three percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa self-identified as socialist. Fewer than that self-identify as "capitalist" in the same poll. It was an interesting point of data that caught a lot of people's attention. It's not a question that's been asked before, so we don't know the trend line. Selzer points out that some of these socialist-identifying voters are supporting Hillary Clinton. So it's not predictive necessarily of whom they will support in the caucus, but it is an interesting piece of data.

Selzer also points out that when it comes to being in the room in a caucus, the question of soft support becomes very, very important. People might enter the room feeling like they're going to support one candidate, but when it comes to actually counting the delegates that come out of each caucus precinct, it matters if these caucus-goers are feeling a little bit lukewarm and willing to be persuaded.

Selzer outlined a hypothetical situation: "If there are enough people standing in the Hillary Clinton corner to have 10 delegates, but they have some people left over that don't quite make up another delegate,” she said. “And those people, if they joined the Bernie Sanders corner, could give him an extra delegate. That's where softness of support can matter, in terms of moving those people from one camp into another camp. “

Selzer says this fluidity makes it impossible to create a poll that mimics the decisions made in a caucus. 

Every election, candidates attempt to align themselves with various interest groups, be it farmers, veterans or the very young. Which groups are important in Iowa this year?

The two interest groups that Selzer is looking at this year the most are youth and women. And in the most recent data that she has, what she is finding is that those are two very important draws for Democratic voters, but it seems that the youth vote might be the more important vote to pay attention to.

Selzer says they looked at lots of different ways of separating out older women, younger women, older men, younger men. When those two demographics are crossed together, young women are more likely to support Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton.

The headline of The Daily Iowan on Thursday. Pollster Anne Selzer says the youth vote is an important group to watch during this year's caucus.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

But any if you look at the overall trends for this race, what Selzer points out is that a year ago Bernie Sanders was at 5 percent, Hillary Clinton was at 56 percent. That's an 11-1 margin. Since then, Bernie Sanders has trended straight up in Iowa. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has trended downward, although not straight down. It’s been volatile, but she is now at 42 percent.

So the race right now, 40 percent to 42 percent, is really tight.  [Selzer], of course, is unwilling to predict a winner or how this is going to end up on caucus day. 

VPR’s coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.