It was a long time between presidential polls in Iowa. I didn’t mind the gap.
The polling drought in Iowa ended last Sunday with the release of a CBS/YouGov survey of nearly 1,000 likely participants in the Feb. 3 Iowa presidential caucuses.
It had been a little more than seven weeks since the mid-November release of the last two surveys of Iowa voters taken by pollsters deemed reliable enough by the Democratic National Committee to count as “qualifying” for the purposes of limiting the number of candidates eligible to participate in major televised debates, including Tuesday’s debate in Des Moines.
A few possible reasons:
The holidays got in the way. They always do for pollsters, since all the travel and related whoop-de-do make it difficult to solicit responses, but this time Thanksgiving and Christmas were packed as close together on the calendar as possible, making it worse.
The impeachment got in the way. Pollsters were more interested in taking the nation’s pulse about the Democrats’ effort to remove President Donald Trump from office than they were in gauging incremental shifts in popularity in the large and ever-evolving field of Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Newsroom budgets got in the way. Polls are more expensive than ever — “The swarm of robocalls Americans now receive, along with the development of call-blocking technologies, means that lots of people don’t answer calls from unknown numbers,” according to a recent Pew Research Center overview. “Response rates have gone from 36% in 1997 to 6% today” — and many journalistic organizations that sponsor polls are cutting costs. What, after all, is the value to the bottom line of posting results that other news organizations almost immediately repost?
A sense of futility set in. Why bother? Iowa is famously hard to poll. Voters there have exhibited a willingness to change their minds up to the last minute, making early polls more or less name-recognition contests, and turnout for caucus events tends to be low.
“The rules of the game make it even harder,” said Michael Traugott, an emeritus professor of political science at the
University of Michigan and former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. In a multicandidate Democratic field “caucus participants can get second, third and more chances to vote if their candidate doesn’t get 15% support in a given round,” Traugott said. “It’s very difficult to forecast where they’re going to end up.”
The dearth of qualified polling caused understandable consternation among Democratic hopefuls who hadn’t yet met the survey requirements to make the debate stage — 5% in four qualifying polls or 7% in two qualifying early state polls between Nov. 14 and the Friday (Jan. 10) deadline — but who felt that their momentum ought to be carrying them there. Other candidates had dropped out — notably Sen. Kamala Harris — and voters had had the chance to watch several debates, yet their official numbers were stuck.
Andrew Yang, in particular, sent a letter to the DNC on Dec. 21 asking the party to commission its own polls since the news organizations and universities weren’t coming through. “Big shifts can happen within short periods in this race,” he wrote, but with the “meager number of polls currently out in the field … a diverse set of candidates might be absent from the (Tuesday debate) stage in Des Moines. … This is a troubling prospect for our party.”
Yang also joined eight other candidates in signing a letter to the DNC initiated by
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker asking that candidates who have demonstrated sufficient fundraising ability — 225,000 unique donors is the current standard — be exempt from the polling threshold requirements prior to debates.
I like the idea. It doesn’t sit quite right with me to allow poll takers — no matter how objective or well intended — and those with the time or inclination to respond to their queries to become gatekeepers for democracy. And the either/or method for keeping debates manageably small seems fair enough.
Generally, I read every story about poll results and obsess over minor movements even when they’re well within the margin of error, but I’ve got to say I wasn’t particularly bothered by a paucity of public opinion data coming out of Iowa between midNovember and early January.
(CBS/You Gov showed only minor movements over that span among the top five contenders — Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden now tied at 23%; Elizabeth Warren at 16% and Amy Klobuchar at 7%, if you must know. A Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa poll released Friday evening showed Sanders at 20%, up 5% since November; Warren at 17%, up 1%; Buttigieg at 16%, down 9%; and, unchanged, Biden at 15% and Klobuchar 6%.)
The break invited us to consider the issues and the resumes of the candidates, not their jockeying position in the horse race. It invited us to stop focusing for a moment on viability and focus instead on suitability. And it fed the dream that onthe-ground, retail campaigning, not just big infusions of cash, was quietly but surely changing the dynamics of this important upcoming contest.
Kind of refreshing, really.
Go, you Bobcats!
Admit it. Just about every one of you political nerds who has read this far down in today’s column recognizes the words “Quinnipiac University” simply from the ubiquitous expression, “a Quinnipiac University poll.”
Fewer than 1 in 100 of you knows where it is — Hamden, Connecticut — or what relation polling has to its academic mission. I certainly had no idea until, when doing some background reading for the above, I came across stories that explained Quinnipiac was an obscure school of about 2,000 students until the late 1980s when it hired a new president from Marist College — sound familiar? — who decided to emulate Marist and use polling to generate name awareness.
Others colleges and universities whose names you will likely recognize only from polling stories include Monmouth, Suffolk, Emerson, Winthrop and Siena.
Quinnipiac now reportedly spends more than $2 million a year on the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. This sounds a little nuts until you realize that many schools spend a lot more than that on intercollegiate sports in far less successful efforts to raise their national profile, and until you learn Quinnipiac has since boosted enrollment to more than 7,400 students, which has expanded its academic offerings.
Still speaking of polls, the winner of this week’s reader survey to select the funniest tweet was “Nothing says ‘I secretly think my God is powerless’ like bringing a gun into church” by writer and director Andrew Bradley, who tweets as @BettyBowers.
An attendee listens to former Vice President Joe Biden, a presidential candidate, speak during a campaign stop at Tilford Elementary School in Vinton, Iowa, earlier this month.