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On this edition of Iowa Press, public opinion pollster J. Ann Selzer analyzes the results of the 2020 election, including her recent work on the Des Moines Register's October Iowa poll.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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As the final votes are tallied from Election 2020 across the country, we examine the numbers with Iowa pollster Ann Selzer on this edition of Iowa Press.

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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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, November 6 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: Americans held their collective breath this week as Election Day turned into Election Week with extended vote counting in battleground states across the country. In the highest turnout election ever, there were many surprises for voters and political observers, including disparities in the final margins from the expectations of public opinion polls. The final Des Moines Register-Mediacom Iowa Poll in late October raised eyebrows for pegging large leads for Donald Trump and Joni Ernst in this state. Other pollsters predicted a close race or leads for Joe Biden and Theresa Greenfield here. The Iowa Poll was a clear winner of Election Night and its pollster Ann Selzer joins us today at the Iowa Press table to discuss it. Ann, welcome to the show. 

Selzer: It's always a pleasure to be here, David.

Yepsen: Good to have you with us. And I want our viewers to know that you and I are taping this interview on Friday afternoon. Well, let's begin. We know what happened in Iowa, but why? What were the elements that went into the republican victories in this state?

Selzer: There are so many, I'll just touch on a couple and maybe we'll follow up. But I think when you look at the presidential race and how the counties fell, they fell identically to the way they fell in 2016. That is, Joe Biden won six counties, he won the same six counties that Hillary Clinton had won. So Iowa as just geographically a predominantly red state, there hasn't been that much change. There was a bit of a whisper or what seemed like wind at the time in 2018 in the congressional races and democrats seemed to have some momentum. But perhaps it was a wake-up call for republicans and in they came and they did well at the polls.

Yepsen: What were Iowans saying with their votes? You ask people why they vote the way they do. What did you find --

Selzer: Well, we ask what issues are important to them and then we try to find the why there. I think one of the things we noticed was a clear and consistent message from republicans that it's the economy, stupid, that what was driving their vote more than anything else was the economy. And for democrats supporting Joe Biden it was more dispersed. There were some that cared about COVID, there were some that cared about restoring what is good about America, that was our language there, there was some about competent leadership. But there wasn't that one key thing that people could latch onto and you heard that as you talked to people out on the street too I bet.

Yepsen: So, do you think Iowa is a red state or a purple state? We had the Republican State Chairman sitting right where you are, he was saying he thought Iowa was a purple state. The Governor said no, Iowa is a red state. What do you think?

Selzer: You know, it depends on how you define it I suppose. But if purple means that there will be times that democrats are elected and there will be times that republicans hold more sway, then Iowa is purple. It depends on the quality of the candidates and depends on the consistency and clarity in the message.

Yepsen: One of the things demographically that I look at and that I have noticed over the years in polls, if you look at a map of the country Iowa seems to be performing more like Nebraska and Missouri than Wisconsin and Minnesota. It's as if it isn't northern Iowa or southern Iowa but sort of a diagonal across our state. IS there anything to that? Is there some demographic reason for that?

Selzer: Well, I've never looked at the geometry quite like that. We certainly look at the river counties on the Mississippi side and see that those can swing, that blue collar manufacturing sector side, and they swung for Donald Trump and they did not come back. And I think there was a lot of expectation for the First Congressional District after they had elected Abby Finkenauer two years ago that that was a meaningful and lasting change. There can be change in Iowa, but lasting, I think that is the hard part.

Yepsen: Other polls including yours early on had a much closer race, but in the end it broke for Trump and Ernst. What did you see that many of us did not?

Selzer: Well, we certainly saw a difference in our date, which if you're a pollster and this is your final poll there is a little bit of a clench to be sure that everything is right. So we looked at all the different ways that things came together. And as you know our approach is to trust our method. But just from a spectator point of view, a little bit of insight, but when we released our September poll I remember saying to the editors and reporters at the Register, if I were Joni Ernst or advising her I would tell her to attach herself to Chuck Grassley, who had shown himself rather popular in that poll, and never leave his side. So there were things that can happen between a September poll and a final poll. And the second thing, again, this is observational, Governor Branstad resigned as the Ambassador to China and came back and was on the campaign trail. Specifically he has said the reason for his timing was to campaign. And you know as well as I, he knows the state very, very well and perhaps was not just a presence but an advisor about where the votes are that can be had.

Yepsen: So, did republicans do a better job in your estimation in firing up their base than democrats did?

Selzer: They certainly had a clear and consistent message and then I think if you watched the final week ahead of the election there was more electricity on the republican side, there were more rallies, there was more hype. My office is in Valley Junction and there was a Trump parade that came by a couple of times of people honking their horns and showing some excitement. I happened to be listening to Rush Limbaugh earlier this week, perhaps Monday he was talking about our poll, and he said, if you were an alien and you arrived here and all you could do was just look and see what this campaign is doing and what this campaign is doing, who would you think is winning? Because the excitement, the movement, physical movement was on the republican side and more sedate on the democratic side.

Yepsen: Well, democrats are having a little period of introspection here about their tactical decision not to do door-to-door campaigning, it wasn't just here in Iowa but it was around the country. Looking back over the numbers and what you saw in your numbers, was that a mistake by democrats?

Selzer: You have to wonder if it were. I think there's one additional thing that, again, this is a little bit speculation on my part. But given that there was a presumption that democrats would do more early voting and more absentee voting, if you recall the first day that early voting was available the long lines of people who as soon as they could vote they were out there in those lines, not just in Iowa but other states too. It made me wonder if the peak of the democratic campaign was early, to get everybody signed up, get your absentee ballots, get early voting done and that the republicans expecting a bigger turnout on Election Day, they began their arch, their final arch later so that the final days, the few days right before the election was more of the republican hitting their peak when the democrats felt they had banked enough. I don't know and maybe you'll talk to somebody who will come to this table and explain what happened there.

Yepsen: We're all trying to divine what was going on there. So you're saying, in other words, they peaked too early and republicans were on at a better cycle time?

Selzer: I wonder if that explains something.

Yepsen: Women, once again women voted more democrat than men. Why is that?

Selzer: Well, my doctoral dissertation many, many years ago at the University of Iowa was on that topic. And my theory had to do with women entering the workforce in large numbers and having an independent exposure to political ideas and political information apart from their husbands or their fathers and that that would lead them to look for their own self-interest and would lead to some separation. It makes some sense that way. There is a marriage gap as well, that if you are in a marriage and that mostly today means a heterosexual marriage, one man and one woman, if you're married you're more likely to vote republican and if you're unmarried more likely to vote democrat. And sometimes the marriage gap is bigger than the gender gap. But to me it's kind of the same thing. If you're fending for yourself, if you are your own advocate, what party speaks to you?

Yepsen: TV ads, we were a wash in TV ads, more television advertising money spent here than ever before. The law of diminishing returns at some point?

Selzer: Again, I can speak to this as an observer of it, which it was an avalanche of ads and it was here is the one candidate and here is the opposition and they're saying the same thing about each other. It was just this kind of finger pointing thing, for a lot of it, not all of it. But I don't know that enough money was spent on messaging as was spent on placement. And so you've got the repeated message very easy to get burned out on television advertising and very easy to avoid it as well if you want.

Yepsen: But sometimes, Ann, we've seen political advertising in this state that does move numbers, it does have an impact. Joni Ernst's ad six years ago, make 'em squeal, one of the best political ads made in America in a long time. I didn't see anything like that this time, did you? Was there anything that struck you that resonated particularly well with the electorate?

Selzer: I have to say no. But did I watch every single ad? No. But the ones that I saw repeatedly, as I said, I just think the messaging was not as clear and concise and memorable.

Yepsen: Rural versus urban, rural voters, everyone is talking about rural voters. So a couple of questions along those lines. One is, much was made during the last four years about tariffs and derechos and low farm income and time and time again, oh has Trump really hurt himself with these tariffs? What happened that rural America suffering all these problems still voted for Donald Trump. Why?

Selzer: I can't tell you that this is completely data driven. It's informed by data but not, doesn't make a solid case. When I have talked with rural voters, and you mentioned the trade tariffs, they say it was time for somebody to stand up to China, somebody had to do it and if we're harmed in the short run, we can recover in the long run. The derecho got very little attention outside of Iowa in terms of what that meant to all of that. But there was some attempt to make farmers whole. They've got crop insurance, there are some things in place and the Trump administration came in with some programs that were designed specifically and I think he was noted for saying, you farmers probably like it better now that you don't have to farm. Do I have that right? And there may have been farmers that said, yeah, and by the way, he is fixing the economy. It's the best economy that we've ever had and if it's -- okay, we've suffered a setback with COVID, but if anybody can get our economy back, again, it's the economy, the economy, the economy, they think it's President Trump.

Yepsen: I've heard farmers say I got my Trump money. It wasn't federal money, it was Trump money. And along those lines, there is a book out by Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas, and it explores the notion that rural people don't necessarily vote their economic interests, that it is social issues, they're evangelical or they are for the death penalty or for Second Amendment rights. Do you think there's something to that, that we can't look at economic index to see what rural America is doing, we've got to look at other things?

Selzer: I believe that to be true. I have read the book. I grew up in Kansas. And what happened in their election pretty much reflects the same thing. And I think when you go to Northwest Iowa and when you talk to Trump voters and you talk to them about what is it that is happening here and push them, which I do when I do focus groups, I push on them, they will say look, the most important thing are the babies, we've got to save the babies. And for people who don't live in that kind of neighborhood where there is a strong evangelical influence you might think that they're not paying enough attention to other things. It's the most important thing. And I think there are several of those issues, the Second Amendment being another one of them, that it is, it touches the heart and once you have that emotional sort of sense of this is the only moral way to go, it's very hard for someone to come in and say well yeah, but how is your checkbook lately? If they're doing okay they're not going to bother so much, even though they could be doing better, the checkbook doesn't stand a chance against a moral imperative.

Yepsen: We talked about rural, let's talk about suburbs. Much is made of voters in America but also even here in Iowa that there is a growing suburban vote. Here in Iowa though republicans seemed to do fairly well in legislative races in suburbs.

Selzer: And there's obviously a clear distinction between what happened in the legislative races and what happened elsewhere. But I think that people who are known and well-known to their constituents do well in Iowa. It's a rare thing to be booted out of office unless there is such an overwhelming and, again, consistent message that says this isn't working for Iowa anymore. And I didn't hear it, I don't know if you heard it.

Yepsen: I wonder if we don't make too much out of the suburbs. If you look at Iowa's population there are a lot of us who are one or two generations removed from small town Iowa or the farm. You grew up in Kansas, I grew up in Jefferson, Iowa.

Selzer: I grew up in urban Kansas.

Yepsen: Well, all right, so my point is that we talk about suburbs but is that really that big of a deal in terms of the electorate? There are a lot of evangelicals, for example, who live in the suburbs. Are we making too much out of it?

Selzer: I think where you live people do tend, this is trite, tend to sort themselves by where do they feel comfortable and they build a community of like-minded souls where they live. So they go to the same church, they shop at the same grocery store, there is a certain amount of that that birds of a feather commonly live together. But in a city like Des Moines, if you look at many neighborhoods in Des Moines, and you look at West Des Moines, it's not like it's a completely different universe. It's not like Urbandale is a completely different universe. So there's more intermarriage, if you will, in terms of how people relate that way. But I think it had more to do with the women's vote than suburb or urban necessarily.

Yepsen: What do you mean?

Selzer: That suburban women in particular showed an early distaste for the Trump style of presidency and there was some backing off of that and showed up in Iowa in 2018 in terms of flipping a couple of congressional districts.

Yepsen: Independents, people who aren't republicans or democrats, how did they perform here in Iowa?

Selzer: They went strongly for President Trump and that was a different from our September poll. It's one of those things that makes a pollster's heart do a flutter about how is that happening. Two things happened close to Election Day. One is that people changed their mind about who they are supporting, they have been waffling, waffling, waffling, they settled in. The second thing that happens is that people decide to vote who hadn't presented themselves as a likely voter in our polls before. And so that is part of that in the final push of getting not only people you know will vote, but getting them to go get other people to go and vote. So I think part of what happened with independents is people went and found like-minded souls or they got pulled into the polls when they left to their own devices might not have. And just one other details which is there was so much talk about trouble at the polls that there may have been people who just decided they didn't get their request in for an absentee ballot in time and they thought, I'll just have to skip it because I'm not going to stand in line, I don't want to be pressured at the polls in any kind of way and then they drove past their polling place and I think across Iowa it was pretty easy, in and out. And so there may have been more people who voted than anticipated.

Yepsen: Minority voters in Iowa, particularly Iowans of Latino ancestry. NPR had a story today the gist of which was that we have to quit referring to Latinos as Latinos. There are people of Mexican ancestry, Cuban ancestry and Puerto Rican and others. Is this an issue in Iowa? Iowa is still pretty a lily white place, right?

Selzer: It is and so that is a handicap to a pollster to really kind of separate them out. I will tell you if you look deep into the tea leaves below the level that would ever be published, we see some of those things happening. We do not see that it is necessarily a slam dunk for democratic candidates among Latino, among African-Americans, and among Native Americans. Now, I say this literally at the tea leaf level, the tiny little dots of data that simply show something that you might not expect in terms of an overall this is you're either white or you're non-white, if you're non-white it's a good predictor you're going to vote democratic. We're seeing some shake up in that.

Yepsen: Republicans were doing pretty well with registrations of felons who had regained the franchise and there was a lot of speculation among republicans that a lot of these are minority voters and they'll be democrats. Well, in fact there were a lot of them that were white, blue collar and they opted to vote for republicans. We could go on about that. I want to switch gears, Ann, to the mechanics of polling. After that final poll you took a lot of grief from democrats and others because you were so different than they were. What did you see, I realize I'm asking you about your secret sauce here, but what did you see that everybody else missed?

Selzer: This is really in the mechanics and it can get technical so I'll try to avoid it. My approach to polling is to think about it as polling forward, that is I don't want to get in the way of my data revealing to me what is happening. So I don't want to make assumptions, I don't want to make any judgments about what is the right outcome or the wrong outcome. There are a lot of other polling outfits that decide how they are going to weight their data by looking backwards to see what was I expecting  and how would they have arrived at that except to look at past elections and sort of embed those assumptions into their data. I call that polling backward. And our approach is to stay out of the way. So when we see these numbers that are different from our September poll we check everything that we normally check to make sure there's nothing kind of, there's no funny business going on, and once we're convinced that it's okay now we have to explain it to our client and have them feel comfortable. But my approach that maybe sets me apart is to just let it stand. And it can be an agonizing few days because you're in pot shot land as everybody comes out to say she's terrible, she'll be fired, this is no good, don't pay any attention to it. And I've been out outlier queen many times so you would think I would be used to it. It's not comfortable but all I can do is wait and see.

Yepsen: Trust the force.

Selzer: Trust my method, yeah.

Yepsen: What do you say to people who, you'll hear this, you’ve heard this, I never get polled, I don't answer phones, nobody has a landline anymore and I don't answer phone numbers I don't recognize. Is that true? How do you overcome that?

Selzer: Sure it's true. And this is probably the thing I worry about for our industry in the middle of the night which is we rely on the kindness of strangers who will look at their phone when it rings and decide to answer it and decide to stay on the phone with us for a few minutes and for no pay. They are volunteering an asset that they hold and we make money off of that. And I don't know that that business model, I keep saying I don't know how long this can last. But I've said that for several cycles now.

Yepsen: Was it easier because of the pandemic? People were home, more people picking up the phone wanting to talk to somebody?

Selzer: Right, well it certainly is true that you can call outside of evening hours because people may pick up their phone, they might be able to take a break if they want to do it. So in some ways, but not in a way that is meaningful, it's more anecdotal than anything else.

Yepsen: A lot of criticism from republicans and conservatives about the media and polling. Do you find it harder to reach republicans and conservatives than democrats and get them to respond?

Selzer: We would have no way of knowing if it's more difficult to reach them if they won't talk to us. So I can only look at how did our polls perform? And we must have reached an okay number of republicans or our numbers would not be accurate.

Yepsen: Do people know who the Iowa Poll is? Does that help you get people to respond? It's not like Quinnipiac is calling up and people say what? People are familiar with the Des Moines Register, they are familiar with Mediacom, they are familiar with the Iowa Poll. Is that a help in increasing responses?

Selzer: I would like to think it is. I would like to think when an Iowan answers the phone and say hello, I'm calling from the Iowa Poll, that gives them some comfort. But I can't tell you that it's an enormous advantage.

Yepsen: One last thing, we've got a minute left. The Caucuses. You had to poll a poll and it was very controversial. What happened? Why did you do that?

Selzer: There was an incident where a person who was part of the Pete Buttigieg campaign was polled and they didn't hear their candidate's name mentioned and so that caused a little bit of a concern. We investigated it. We found out that on the terminal where the polling was taking place a person had made the font bigger so that the whole list of candidates wasn't on the same screen so they didn't realize there were more candidates to be named. And sort of flash forward, as we're trying to work all this out on the day that the poll is going to be released it became apparent that the poll would be weaponized. No matter what we did there was no way to come through unscathed and rather than risk all of that and the integrity of the poll it was pulled.

Yepsen: You got a lot of criticism from people but in the industry you did the right thing.

Selzer: Thank you, I hope so.

Yepsen: We have to leave it there. Thanks, Ann, appreciate it.

Selzer: My pleasure.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at Noon on Sunday. Our guest will be Iowa's new Congresswoman-elect Ashley Hinson of Marion. The First District Republican from Northeast Iowa next week on Iowa Press. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa