As the calendar turns to 2018 elections political pundits set their sights on future elections and examine public opinions. We dive deeper with one of the most accurate pollsters in America, Iowa's 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, December 29 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: In the feverish lead up to elections many politicians rely heavily on public opinion polls to measure their progress. And reporters gauging matchups and political storylines do the same. But that information is only as good as its source and method of collection. To talk about it and joining us on Iowa Press today is one of the most accurate pollsters in Iowa and beyond, Ann Selzer. Ann, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Selzer: Always a pleasure to be here.

Yepsen: Across the table, Jason Noble is Chief Political Writer for the Des Moines Register and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Let's begin with the top of ticket race in Iowa in 2018. You went into the field, you gauged support and opinions about Iowa's Chief Executive Kim Reynolds. What did you find?

Selzer: Well, we found a couple of things. First of all, may I start by apologizing for my crinkly voice, I'm recovering from a cold today.

Yepsen: Tis the season.

Selzer: Just bear with me.

Henderson: If you polled I think half of Iowans are in your --

Selzer: You're probably right. We found a couple of things about Governor Kim Reynolds. One is that her approval rating has gone up a little bit, but so has her disapproval rating. That is, Iowans are getting to know her better. But a key question we ask is really kind of a standard in pollster world, a vote to re-elect. Would you vote for Kim Reynolds in the 2018 Governor's race? Or would you opt for somebody else? That's a nefarious kind of nebulous kind of alternative. But plurality say they'd like somebody else. She's not at the 50% mark, which is where an incumbent wants to be on a vote to re-elect question.

Henderson: So where was Terry Branstad in 2014's cycle at this point?

Selzer: We did not ask that question of Terry Branstad, we haven't asked it for a while. We asked it of Chet Culver and his numbers looked about like Kim Reynolds' and we know the end of that story, he was not re-elected.

Henderson: If you look at just stepping back, if you were advising a candidate, which perhaps you aren't advising Governor Reynolds, but is there something that a candidate in looking at polling data should really dig into if they, as a red flag?

Selzer: Well, certainly that number is a red flag. She is down in the 30s on the vote to re-elect her. So that is a wakeup call to say that what is it that you're doing is not building the kind of support you need in terms of turnout on Election Day. You also go looking for how strong is your support with republicans? And in fact she is going to face a challenger, so we think, for the primary, and so we would go looking at the numbers for Ron Corbett to see what they are, he's not especially well known statewide so there is nothing that is flying off of those numbers there. But then you look at independents because they're going to vote and if their numbers look more like democrats then they look like independents then you've really got a fight on your hand because you cannot win the Iowa Statehouse with just republicans.

Noble: Ann, let's talk about the democratic field. There's seven candidates in this race. What does the polling show about them?

Selzer: The polling shows that they're not very well known, the majority say for each of the candidates that we asked about, they don't know enough to say whether they feel favorable or unfavorable. The most visibility right now goes to Fred Hubbell, Andy McGuire, former head of the Democratic Party, slightly behind. But those are overall state numbers.

Noble: Is that what you'd expect at this phase in the race seven months out from a primary?

Selzer: Unless you have got someone who is currently holding statewide office, if we had a Tom Miller in the race, for example, the Attorney General, you would see more statewide recognition. It's always sort of a building process and this is an early read about where they are along those lines. You have to remember there was a point where Bernie Sanders was unknown in Iowa and he ended up nearly defeating Hillary Clinton in a primary. So you can start from anywhere. His first number with us was a 3%. So you can build from anywhere, that's how Iowa works.

Yepsen: So is Fred Hubbell, is he where he is just primarily because of his television ads, or do you have any thoughts about why it is --

Selzer: He certainly has been the most visible, many of these candidates put me on their mailing lists in hope of, I don't know, of something, but it certainly gives me a sense of how active their campaign is and the Hubbell campaign seems more active than the others.

Noble: And you also polled on a question that I was really curious about, kind of this generic ballot question, would you favor a democrat or a republican for Congress? What did you see there across the state and in the districts?

Selzer: Well, very interesting because Iowa has been, is represented in Washington by mostly, all but one of the congressional delegation are republican. We found stronger support to vote for the democratic candidates. So in three of those races that democratic candidates is going to be a newcomer. The only district where the republican held a lead was in the Fourth District and it wasn't by much, only I think about a 3 or 4 point lead for what would be incumbent Steve King. So I think this is significant to the mood of Iowa that has been moving somewhat strongly and then striding into republican territory and now this is a first glimpse that perhaps that pendulum may swing back to be more evenly divided or perhaps a democratic state.

Henderson: You mentioned the pendulum, how fast is this thing swinging in Iowa? You've been polling here for quite some time. It seems as if it swings faster and faster and faster.

Selzer: I would agree with you. Everything is on a hurry up schedule like the football team without a huddle, everything is moving very fast. And I guess the indicator, Kay, I would look at is the presidential job approval rating with Donald Trump at about 35% approval. That matches about what we're seeing nationally. So we went back and looked at other presidents and how did they do in Iowa and you can think of a few, LBJ, Nixon, Carter, these are all people who had low points, George W. Bush hit a low point, but they never got this low this early. All of those low points were late into their administrations. So this is an early read that Iowa, a state that voted for Donald Trump with I think a 9 point margin, is not approving of the job that he's doing. And there is going to be a ripple effect to that.

Henderson: But tell us about the breakdown between party, Republicans still sticking with him, democrats obviously probably aren't. Key independents, how are they feeling about the President these days?

Selzer: That's right. The republicans are still, there is a core that are Trump supporters. I think it's in the 70% range. Democrats are very anti-Trump. You're going to be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of democrats who say they approve of the job they're doing. independents evenly divided. They're just, I'm sorry, they are more negative than they are positive about what's happening. Again, that's an indicator for what could be happening in the overall mood of the state.

Yepsen: Ann, is the President's job approval rating, his negative rating, isn't that one of the worst that we've seen for a President in Iowa? You said it was earlier than other Presidents have had. But how does this compare?

Selzer: Well, he is at 35%. We had LBJ, Lyndon Johnson at 29% at his worst, Nixon at 28%, Carter at 25%, so we've certainly seen lower and much lower. So he's not as low as he can go.

Noble: And do you have any data on where the President is losing support in the state? And is there any way to kind of look at how that might be affecting the election to come in 2018 when he's not on the ballot? Is it the suburbs? Is it the rural areas? Where is this support draining for him?

Selzer: Well, I guess I would go back and look at the congressional district who you're going to vote for, for the House, because that's the opportunity for people to say, we need some balance over what's happening. And as I mentioned, three of the four congressional districts their vote is stronger for democrats, it's by 18 points in the first congressional district, it's by 10 points in the second, only by 1 in the third and as I said republican there. So the losing of support is, I'm going to just extrapolate here, and say more on the eastern side of the state, which has been typically more democratic than the western side of the state. He has lost support with women and that's not terribly surprising given the overall mood of the nation on issues that they care about. And for him to score as low as he does with republicans, he should be in the 90% range with republicans or 80% range and he's in the 70s.

Yepsen: What happens when a politician's party, or he gets so low with his own party, do they vote in a midterm election or will they just stay home? Any sense of how the voters will behave?

Selzer: Well, I think we can look at Alabama and it sort of depends. We know that the republican candidate for Senate, Roy Moore, had a difficult situation with republicans. Were they going to support him or not? The national party pulled their support and then the President came out and endorsed him. You had this very mixed message about what was happening by party. So you have to think, and we know that some states they had really big turnout. Well, where did that turnout come? Alabama mostly a republican state, yet a democrat won.

Noble: How are Iowans feeling about their Senior Senator Chuck Grassley?

Selzer: Chuck Grassley's approval rating was low for Chuck Grassley. He is normally stratospheric in the 60%, 70% range and he was I think at 51%. So that is the lowest we have seen for him since early in his administration, in his tenure in office. And you know that when he was elected that was a very controversial and very close election. So we would expect those numbers to be low. But he is now in that area.

Noble: So this poll was actually in the field as Chuck Grassley was in the news for a remark that he made about booze, women and movies. Did you see anything in the poll results that indicated how that was reaching Iowans and how they were responding to it?

Selzer: We looked at, excuse me, we looked at the night by night tracking and his numbers started pretty good at 57% approval rating. I'm sorry --

Yepsen: That's okay. I want to follow up with a question about as you track that is sort of the bloom off of Chuck Grassley's rose in Iowa? He has been so stratospheric and now we're seeing these things come back down. So that's sort of the follow up to this question.

Selzer: So the night by night tracking showed him starting strong and ending weak. The first two days he was over 50%, the last two days down around 40%. So it seemed to have had an impact. The bloom has been off the rose for a while so this continued a downward slide for Chuck Grassley.

Henderson: You recently discussed voting that happened in Alabama. There has also been off year elections, we like to refer to them, in New Jersey and Virginia. And a lot of people like to point to those and say, lessons can be learned about what happened in those particular states. As a pollster can you really take what happened in essentially a really red state and two really blue states and make it applicable to the Iowa electorate in any way?

Selzer: Well, the way we tried to get a handle on that was to ask people if they were feeling more energized politically or more turned off. And for every demographic group, every demographic group, more said they were turned off. So that is young, that's old and with very little difference, it was relatively flat across all of those demographic groups. There just is more of a sense that this is an ugly time in American politics. So when we look at what has happened in other states that appears to have been to the benefit of democrats in terms of showing up.

Yepsen: So people who are angry, do they stay home or do they come roaring out to the polls and vote? I can see people saying, a plague on all your houses, I'm not going to vote at all.

Selzer: Well, I think we saw that in 2016, that we had two candidates that were both unliked in record high numbers, the dislike factor was very high, and a lot of people chose to stay home and so that election was won by unusual demographic groups as we look at polling and the way that normally works. So there were democrats who stayed home because they couldn't bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton or left the top of the ticket blank and you had the same thing happening on the republican side. But trying to predict how the innards of that are going to work out in a future election date, polling data is not very good at helping with that.

Henderson: One of the things that did not happen in 2016 given what you have just described as two unpopular candidates nominated by the two predominant parties was people didn't choose a third party candidate. Jill Stein didn't get very many votes. Are you seeing in polling data here and elsewhere any sort of movement toward creation of a third party?

Selzer: We're not seeing it in polling data, it's a hard place to look for it if something doesn't yet exist. You can ask people if there were a third party would you vote for that? And some polls do ask that and you get what looks like a critical mass where that might be something. But the idea, we certainly are seeing here in Iowa the increasing irrelevancy of the parties, that is more and more people choosing to define themselves as independent, not aligned with either party. Are they there for the taking? Well, you have to put a party structure in place, you've got to organize it, it won't happen just out of the blue. It will take a leader and it will take an organization to make something like that viable.

Yepsen: Ann, I want to ask you about whether Iowa is becoming a more republican state. Our viewers are going to see some tables that you brought with you to show this question about is Iowa becoming a more republican state? Can you explain?

Selzer: And this is just a map that I happened upon that the New York Times published that shows the county who won or who lost back in 2008. Barack Obama won the state I think by about 8 percentage points, roughly in that range. And you can see that the state looks to be more than half in the blue category, that is the democrat won in those counties. By contrast we look at 2016, you have a veritable handful of counties that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. And so people have said, well, is Iowa still a swing state because look at that map, that doesn't look like a swing state and look at your Governor's seat and look at your Houses in your state legislature and look at the people who hold other statewide offices. I said look, you can make the argument that Iowa is a red state, the thing that gives me pause is redistricting and that Iowa has married itself to a plan that is not partisan as some other states do, we don't have gerrymander districts, and therefore there is an opportunity for democrats to come back and take either House in the Iowa legislature, take the Governor's race, that's a little less affected, but it's possible in Iowa.

Yepsen: And how much of what we saw in those two charts that you just showed us is simply two sides of the same coin? Voters are angry, they were angry in 2008, they voted for the outsider, the newcomer, Obama and in 2016 they voted again for the outsider Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton ran better in Texas than she ran in Iowa. So is that just a function of the individual candidates and it doesn't really tell us anything about the partisan drift in the state?

Selzer: Well, it certainly says a lot about the individual candidates and it also says a lot about the mood. Back before the caucuses we were trying to figure out that mood question, what is the candidate who will be the right fit? So I said, how are you feeling about politicians in general? Are you happy? 1 or 2 percent of either party said they're happy. Satisfied? Around 25%, a third percent. Are you unsatisfied? Then that number was the predominant answer. And are you mad as hell? Well, that number was substantial. So the mood has been one of throw people out, we want something else. And Donald Trump best captured that particular mood.

Noble: And one partisan fault line that we saw in the 2016 race was this divide between college educated voters and those without a college degree. Obviously the ones with a degree voted strongly democratic, those without, republican. Is that a durable trend? Is that a new normal for politics?

Selzer: Well, it's a good question because it certainly is a new finding. It used to be pollsters did not have to pay attention to getting the right mix of education in our respondent pool and now there is hardly a demographic that is more predictive of how you will vote is whether you have a college degree or not.

Yepsen: Ann, you brought some charts to show us education level and voter behavior.

Selzer: Exactly. So you'll see here that over time there has been a little bit of difference in terms of republican versus democratic vote that has evaporated if you have a college degree. But if you have a high school education or less, suddenly, and just recently, it is predictive of whether you will vote republican, 59% in 2016 of those with a high school education or less voted republican. That's almost two to one over the democrat and that's new. So for pollsters education isn't a great variable to try to work with, it's squishier than age and sex and geographic region, so it's trickier.

Yepsen: Well, the flip side of that, excuse me, is how college graduates are voting. I think we have a chart to show the college graduate, whether they are, how they're voting and the greater propensity to vote for democrats.

Selzer: That has changed as well. So it used to be that they were more likely to vote for republicans and now there is virtually no difference in how they're going to vote. But, again, it represents a change in how we understood that demographic --

Yepsen: If I were, excuse me Jason, if I were a democrat looking at this I'd be worried because Iowa has relatively few college graduates. I think it's only about 27%. Isn't that bad news for Iowa democrats?

Selzer: Well, you have to again go back, yes on face value of course it is bad news for Iowa democrats. You have to go back that the change has been relatively recent. So is that permanent? And again it's with education which is a shifting variable, it's not static. So it's not the kiss of doom, let's just put it that way.

Yepsen: Jason?

Noble: Sure. Forever Iowa has been an overwhelmingly white state, we do have a small but growing Latino population. Are you seeing anything yet that speaks to their influence in politics?

Selzer: I think that the Latino population is one that both parties have taken a look at trying to figure out what it is that they need to do to get them to align with them but there's no silver bullet one thing. We many, many years ago did a study about the Latino population in Central Iowa and all of the stereotypes that we thought that we might find or that the advisory committee thought didn't turn out to be true. The Latino community is here to stay, they are part of their community, they are building their own communities, they are building businesses, they are very difficult to stereotype and they vote depending on their nation of origin. Cubans tend to be far more republican and different, just sort of where do they come from, and so treating them as though they are going to be a defined voter block I think would be making a mistake. They're certainly growing, their importance in Iowa will be growing and there are certainly some counties where they will make a difference.

Yepsen: But they're not that important yet. Iowa is still, what, 93% white? So it remains to be seen. That leads me to one other question. We were talking about Alabama and Virginia and New Jersey, some of these other states, are there really any lessons there? Those states are much different demographically than what we are, right?

Selzer: They are different but what do we have in common? We have an electorate that is grappling with what is changing at the national level and trying to figure out what can I use my voice to do? And so one of Donald Trump's strongest constituencies here in Iowa he does well with republicans, the only other group he is right side up with are evangelicals. And so there is a little bit now of conversation within that community in terms of well what, where are our values? What is it that we need? Because it used to be vote republican because that will help us on the Supreme Court. And now I think so many more things are in play that the whole conversation is shifting. And, again, Alabama is very strong indicator that things are shifting because it was such a strongly republican state and they have statewide elected a democrat.

Henderson: Talk about a shift, just really briefly, we haven't much time left, but millennials and this thing. How is your industry going to cope with the new polling landscape?

Selzer: Well, we already are coping. The millennials are already the largest age group in terms of voting. Baby boomers, we thought we were it forever and we're suddenly not the it people anymore, it's the millennials. So we're already taking into account how to reach them, how to be in contact with them.

Yepsen: Ann, 30 seconds left. Aren't millennial voters trending democratic but here in Iowa we don't have that many millennials either, we're an older state, more bad news for democrats?

Selzer: But the chamber of commerce types will tell you, Iowa and Des Moines in particular is on the list of best place for millennials to live, best place to raise a family, best place for tech workers. So I think that is starting to shift.

Henderson: You are in the business of polling, if you had someone approach you and I'm going to give you money, you poll one issue that you haven't gotten to poll yet, what would it be?

Selzer: Wow! One issue, well I'm very interested in the disaffection, excuse me, and how that plays out. So I think we have a tip of the iceberg on that. More to learn.

Yepsen: Ann, thank you. We're out of time, Appreciate you being with us today.

Selzer: Thank you.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us for our latest edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back next week with another edition of the show at our regular airtimes, Friday night at 7:30, Sunday at Noon on our main Iowa PBS channel with a rebroadcast on our .3 World channel Saturday morning at 8:30. 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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