It's Primary Eve and the political stage for 2018 will be set only days from now. What are Iowans thinking? We dive deeper into the data with pollster Ann Selzer on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, June 1 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.   


Yepsen: Once the primary votes are cast in Iowa on Tuesday, the race for 2018 will begin in earnest. Some U.S. House races in Iowa could be competitive and the Governor's contest could break state fundraising records. But what issues and opinions will drive the outcome for primary races here in Iowa? We'll direct that and many more questions to our guest, renowned public opinion pollster, Ann Selzer. Ann, welcome back. Good to have you.

Selzer: Thank you, nice to be here.

Yepsen: Joining the conversation on Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson, News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Let's talk about this democratic primary for Governor. Your firm did polling for the Des Moines Register sort of mid-May. What can you tell us about the frontrunner?

Selzer: Well, the frontrunner is Fred Hubbell and he was leading with 31 points and at that time Nate Boulton was in the race and he was in second place, 11 points behind. There's only one other candidate in double digits and that was Cathy Glasson. The others were in sort of mid-to-small single digits. So a seemingly large field, but not very many getting very many percentage points.

Henderson: And what did you find out about that universe of Hubbell supporters?

Selzer: You know, I think one of the surprising things that we learned, that people have a stereotype that the urban, rich guy wasn't likely to play well in rural Iowa. And in fact, that was one of his demographic strengths. So I think people had written him off in terms of his ability to be able to speak to those audiences, but he did well. He won in each of the four congressional districts. He won with women, he won with men. He really, there was a fairly solid demographic profile there.

Murphy: And you mentioned Senator Boulton is no longer in the race. Was there anything in your numbers that we can use to tell where his supporters may shift their allegiances?

Selzer: This gets a little wonky. So, fasten your seatbelt. We asked a question later in the poll that said, regardless of who you support, who do you think stands the best chance to defeat Kim Reynolds in the general election? And so, for each candidate's supporters they most commonly named their candidate, their first choice candidate. But the second candidate most commonly named was Fred Hubbell in every case. So that was especially true in Nate Boulton. There was no candidate whose second place was a stronger show than Nate Boulton's supporters saying Fred Hubbell stood a better chance. So when we looked across the data after Nate Boulton suspended his campaign we thought that according to the data that day, at the time that that poll was taken, the news would favor Fred Hubbell. Now, I hasten to ask just as a campaign watcher that something like that happens and the second place candidate drops out, that stirs the pot, that gets all voters sort of saying, well wait a second. And whether they maybe had been supporting Nate Boulton or maybe they had been supporting Cathy Glasson or maybe they had been supporting somebody else, it just sort of throws everything a little bit, into a little bit of a frenzy.

Murphy: Yeah, and there was already some fluidity in the race, wasn't there? There were a lot of voters who were undecided, a lot who said they would be willing to change their minds.

Selzer: That's exactly right. So there was a high not sure factor. And then even those who said that they had a first choice candidate, who named a candidate, when we said well have you made up your mind to support your candidate or could you still be persuaded, it was a small percent, it was about 1 in 3 who said their minds were made up, leaving the rest of those people to say they could still be persuaded. So in primaries those votes tend to gel very, very late and as I said, when something dramatic happens in the race that's an opportunity for any candidate to have a surge that we wouldn't have seen at the time we took that poll.

Murphy: So is that still possible in this race, to see a late surge from a John Norris or a Cathy Glasson?

Selzer: I will quote Matt Paul, who talked the other day, he said, strange things can happen. So I'm inclined to trust a campaign operative and say our data would suggest that strange things can happen. If you look just at the numbers you would have to say that Fred Hubbell has the advantage.

Yepsen: One thing that has got those campaign operatives worried is there are a lot of people who already voted absentee for Nate Boulton and they can't get those votes back.

Selzer: That's right.

Yepsen: And that may have an effect in future elections of prompting people to say no, I'm not going to vote absentee, I want to wait and see what the thing looks like on Election Day.

Selzer: That's right. And I read just yesterday that there is a record high number of people who have requested absentee ballots in this primary and I don't know what is driving that. I don't have a clue about which of the campaigns would have been out pushing that especially hard. I don't know that that would have come from the Boulton campaign, I don't know if that would have come from the Glasson campaign.

Henderson: There were 46,000 requests we were told and that is higher than 2016, 2014, all-time high and there were fewer than 10,000 that were still unaccounted for I believe on Thursday. So, when you look at other polling data maybe in other places does it inform how we should look at these absentee early votes?

Selzer: You know, at the time we took the poll, what we like to do, we always ask in terms of determining if you're a likely voter, just asking not only if you intend to vote but have you already voted. And if we do it very close to the election we often have enough people who have already voted to see who is already locked in. We didn't have enough of those to take a look at it this time. But those, what I look at is, or try to speculate about, is who would have been organizing that because we know that campaigns that have a lot of union support, that is one of the ways they use that union labor, which is to get out and work the absentee ballot lists.

Murphy: Well, and the question always is when we talk about early voting numbers is are we creating new voters or are we just cannibalizing people who otherwise would have voted on Election Day? Is there any way to tell that in polling data whether this is creating higher turnout or whether we're just poaching Election Day voters?

Selzer: There's no way to tell that from polling data. And I've heard people speculate on both sides, that this will be a low turnout primary, and then I've heard people speculate because there's a large number of candidates, a large number of credible candidates is the comment that I hear this time and so that may lift turnout.

Henderson: So, we look at these special elections around the country, extremely high turnout, "enthusiasm factor". As a pollster, how do you measure the enthusiasm factor? And did you do that in this previous poll that was conducted in mid-May?

Selzer: We did not do that but it's something I think about and we'll obviously be taking a look at as we go into the fall. When we're polling just one party it's a little, we don't really have much to compare it to. So what would it mean? Is 40% a big number or a small number? That thing that I'm thinking about is you do hear a lot about activation. So I'm thinking about what are the questions that I'm going to ask and probably multiple questions to try to get at that idea because it's easy to overestimate people who are showing up at protests and marches and people who are saying I'm more engaged in this than I've been before. So I think we're going to look at their engagement in the past, present and their interest in engaging in the future and try to get a handle on it.

Henderson: Well, as former Register person Mr. Yepsen over here knows, you were able to measure that enthusiasm in the 2008 caucuses for Obama.

Selzer: Well, the enthusiasm, where we saw it there was the very high, the unprecedentedly high percentage of people who would be first-time caucus goers. And that is a question that perhaps we should have in hindsight included on this poll, would this be your first primary, to take a look at in that poll and I'm sure you remember sitting in the newsroom and challenging me on those numbers, David, because we had 60% of the people saying they were going to show up on caucus night, saying that would be their first caucus, which was a number that it sort of lacked credibility. There was nothing to compare it to.

Yepsen: That wasn't the first time we challenged each other.

Selzer: That was not the first time, nor the last.

Yepsen: And you also polled in the third district democratic primary. You did not poll in the first district primary, but you did in the third. So tell us about Central and Western Iowa democratic primary.

Selzer: There are three candidates who are running there and two were really locked into a tough race and that is Cindy Axne and Eddie Mauro, just one point difference. And I'll say, as we were going day-by-day through that polling, it was that close on every day of that poll. Pete D’Alessandro is the one that a lot of, has gotten some national attention because he was endorsed by Bernie Sanders. And so nationally people are looking at races like that where is there evidence of a lingering Bernie Sanders' coalition who will be taking on the more traditional democratic institutional candidates and causing a disruption in the system. And we had his lagging behind. But again, if there is some organization behind it and some energy behind that, again, it's not a far enough lagging in our poll that there couldn't be some change, late-breaking.

Henderson: In mid-May you did not poll about Iowa's first female Governor. You did in I believe February.

Selzer: That's right.

Henderson: What can you tell us about public approval ratings and how that relates to actual turnout in a general election?

Selzer: Well, Kim Reynolds is the sitting Governor, has not been elected in her own right and so this will be her first test. And Iowans, in a way, are getting to know her for the first time as her own personality. She is doing some advertising right now, which is emphasizing her personality, and she has just come out of a legislative session that lasted a long time and had some controversial legislation and she is not facing a primary in which you sort of get toughened up a bit and get some experience in explaining what happened and getting your ducks in a row about how you're going to go through the reasoning and logic that led to the policies that you're espousing and take Iowans into the future. So she, I feel that that's typically a disadvantage. You can look to Joni Ernst's success as being a guideline to that. Her numbers in our February poll were okay but not that great. I think they showed some vulnerability there as a sitting Governor, probably not unexpected, again, in that she was not elected in her own right. So she didn't have a ready-made, necessarily, constituency there.

Yepsen: What sort of vulnerabilities did you see there?

Selzer: You know, our question was would you vote to re-elect her? And she doesn't get a majority there. There is a question about a job approval rating, not a majority there. Those are kind of the standard things that you look at an incumbent and if you're not hitting a 50% mark that is just typically a vulnerable position to be in. You're going to have to get a majority of people feeling that you're doing a good job.

Murphy: How about the general mood of Iowa voters right now and as we're thinking ahead to the general election here? The whole right track, wrong track question. Where do Iowa voters, how do they feel about the direction of the state right now?

Selzer: They typically feel pretty good about Iowa compared to the nation. But do you have those numbers in front of you?

Murphy: I don't, I'm sorry.

Selzer: So I don't know that I can sort of pull those up out of last February exactly but I can say generally, they tend to feel better about the way things are. Now, the caveat I'm going to put on, again, is that there was a contentious legislative session and some landmark legislation that was passed. So I don't know that what we measured in February would still have standing as we sit here in June.

Yepsen: And how much do Iowa voters mirror the national electorates in terms of their mood overall? You've tracked the mood in Iowa for years, seeing what it is nationally. Are we that much different than the rest of the country?

Selzer: I feel like in terms of saying what the state of the nation is, I think we're pretty much on track with that. There is some disappointment with the way things are going and I don't know that it is the worst it has ever been but it's certainly not the best it has ever been. There's a lot of shaken confidence in the state of our nation and you're seeing a lot of things moving in directions that are not the way that we have been solidified or felt solidified in the past so there has been more breaking apart and more exchanges of hostilities maybe I should say.

Yepsen: But as you note, they generally will feel a little bit better about the state than they do about nationally.

Selzer: Yes, they do. They do.

Henderson: There's a possibility that there could be three women running for Congress given the names on the ballot here in Iowa. We have a woman definitely running for Governor in Kim Reynolds. Do pollsters have to factor in a female factor in the same way that they used to sort of have to factor in something when they were polling about African-American candidates?

Selzer: I don't think so and I don't think they ever factored in something dealing with African-American candidates. They were curious about it but I don't think there was any sort of algorithm that they would have put in their data. They might have asked some follow-up questioning about it. I think what is happening, and again this kind of is a bit about the energized electorate, is that you have had something of a pink wave of women stepping forward and saying that okay, I'm ready to run, I'm ready to run. And maybe they have been asked enough times.

Yepsen: So it's no big deal. We've seen enough examples where women won. And I'm thinking did Senator Ernst sort of break the glass ceiling in Iowa and so the fact that Kim Reynolds is a woman is no big deal?

Selzer: Well, I think that's partly true that it's no big deal. But there are also, nationwide David, there is a huge wave of women stepping forward. The numbers I'm going to give you are only on the democratic side because there is no republican counterpart to Emily's List, which is a democratic group that raises money for women candidates. Between 2015 and 2016, 900 women reached out to them about potentially running for office. From the time Trump took office until a couple of months ago it was 30,000 women. From 900 in one year to over 30,000 in a little more than a year, it's an exponential change in women deciding I'm ready.

Henderson: One other demographic people are talking about is millennials. What can you tell us about millennials in Iowa? Most of the people who vote are older folk in Iowa.

Selzer: Well, what I'll be curious, I don't have any data to share with you on it today, but I'm really interested in taking a look at the kinds of issues that are activating millennials. I think we have kind of the pre-Parkland, post-Parkland mentality and again, that was a moment where millennials said, okay I'm ready to take action, I'm not going to just watch anymore, I'm going to do more. So in Kansas there actually are some teenagers running for office and it will be interesting to see what happens with all of this. But I don't think we know just yet if there will be an increase in voter participation among millennials. You could predict it from some of the energy that we're seeing. But I'm always a little bit skeptical.

Murphy: Ms. Selzer, what are you seeing in President Trump's numbers here in Iowa? He has been in the mid-40s nationally. Are they similar here in Iowa? Is he a little more insulated here than he is nationally? What do his numbers look like and what does it mean for his re-election prospects here in a couple of years?

Selzer: I would say his numbers here are just about the same as they are nationally. They're in that 40% range in terms of job approval. He won this state by a very strong, I think eight percentage points. So you have to kind of take a look at that and feel as though that's a solid base that is here. But again, we'll be looking once we go back out with more of a general population, general election sample, coming in the fall to see what is happening. Again, what has been so challenging for every pollster is that as soon as you think you're ready to go into the field and you've got questions that are right on the cutting edge of the news, something new happens. And I've talked to pollsters who said, okay, I have to pull that question and that question, as they're in the field because something has changed that has made their polling obsolete. So it's a very challenging time to really understand what is happening. I'm looking to create questions that rise above a bit of that day-to-day cacophony, if you will.

Murphy: And with all that, the general approval, disapproval numbers have been fairly static, have they not?

Selzer: They're trending up a bit nationally, trending up a bit, point by point by point, not step by step, point by point.

Yepsen: This is a question I explore a lot with guests. But is Iowa becoming a more republican state? You mentioned Trump winning Iowa. Hillary Clinton did better in Texas than she did here. We're an older, white, rural, non-college state. Is Iowa becoming more republican?

Selzer: I think looking back from this moment in time, David, it's hard to argue otherwise. It has become highly republican if you look at who holds state office, who holds federal office in this state. And if you look at the counties that voted for Trump there are only five or six counties that voted for Hillary Clinton. And when Barack Obama won in 2008, half the counties voted for him, we were truly more of a purple state. When I ask people, well why is that? How did that happen? Or when they ask me and then I ask the pros from Dover who know these things, they said well, the Republican Party is very good at recruiting and grooming candidates for office. And the Democratic Party had sort of fallen away and their bench was not as deep and they had more officeholders who stayed in office a long, long time and so there weren't opportunities to bring people up.

Yepsen: And do we make too much of millennials? The population pattern in this state is young people are leaving this state. So if that's true and while millennials nationally might be more inclined to vote for democrats or progressive candidates, there aren't that many of them left in Iowa, they're leaving the state.

Selzer: Well, I don't know what those exact numbers are. There are signals that the kind of state that Des Moines is and there are people like Zack Mannheimer who are kind of banking on this, that they're not going to be able to afford to live in the places that they have traditionally gone off to and that a city like Des Moines, a state like Iowa, is going to be appealing to them in terms of affordability and still offering the amenities that they look for. So I'm more optimistic about holding onto millennials. It's will they be activated in terms of voting. They're certainly a big piece of the population and our generation, we're getting old and so we're going to, our numbers are going to decrease by attrition if you will. So their numbers, just even if they stay the same, are going to become, they're going to be more powerful.

Henderson: Let's help the viewers at home. They keep hearing that there's going to be a blue wave, they keep hearing no there's not. How do they read the polls and figure out if there is or isn't a blue wave coming?

Selzer: Well, do they need to know or can they just keep their shirts on and wait for Election Day? I think this is what you have pundits for is for them to do the projection and the prediction. What they have pollsters for is to say here is our moment in time, here are some trends that look interesting and here is how it might play out. But any poll that I might take today is subject to what happens before it. Our poll, because Nate Boulton dropped out, you have to sort of put an asterisk by it because these numbers may or may not end up reflecting it.

Henderson: So there may not be a little first grade girl sitting out there saying, I want to grow up and be a pollster. How do you address some of the things that the journalism community is facing in that people are questioning the legitimacy of your work product?

Selzer: Well, that's an interesting question. I hear it all the time and I wish I had a one sentence answer for it because then I'd get some of my life back, really. What pollsters can do and do well continually and it is proven up in the data is adhere to the science of what polling can do. Now, how long can they continue to do that? We were, just like George Gallup taught us, we rely on random sampling rather than volunteers, which is what happens in online polling and panels and that kind of thing. We have live operators so that's helpful instead of having robocalls, which annoy people and I think are bad for our industry. And Nate Silver just released his new analysis of pollster ratings and who is accurate and he is showing that when you do those things you are at the top of his ratings list and when you do these other things you end up at the bottom of the list and there are some widely known names who were getting D's and D minuses that I think are showing what works and what doesn't work. And you can show a poll that had a sample base of 20,000 people, but the method that you're using isn't designed to give you accuracy. So that's a long answer, I wish I had a one sentence answer.

Yepsen: And Ann, you're too modest. That 538 poll ranked you as an A+. Congratulations.

Selzer: Thank you. Thank you.

Yepsen: We trust you. We're out of time. Thanks for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week as candidates pivot to the general election. Join us for Iowa Press 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday on Iowa PBS's main channel with a rebroadcast Saturday morning on our .3 World channel. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen, thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.             

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