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Political discord and measuring support for politicians heading into an election year. We sit down with one of the country's best pollsters, Iowa's own 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. 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 political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, November 26th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 

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Henderson: Our guest today is J. Ann Selzer, one of the country's best, if not the best, pollster. She has been associated with the Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll since 1987. A couple of years ago she began doing a national poll for Grinnell College here in Iowa. Ann Selzer, welcome back to the Iowa Press table.

Selzer: It's always fun to be here, Kay. Thank you for having me.

Henderson: Thanks for being here. And also at the Iowa Press table, Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Lee Enterprises Des Moines Bureau Chief Erin Murphy.

Murphy: So, you just had a recent batch of Iowa Poll results that came out and were published in the Register. One of them included some job approval numbers for Senator Chuck Grassley, who is going to be up for re-election next year, so it's interesting to see where he stands now at sort of the start of that election cycle. If I wrote these down right, his approval rating is 45% approval and 41% disapproval. How is that for Senator Grassley at this point looking ahead to next year?

Selzer: Right. Well, in this day and age a politician is lucky to have more people approving than disapproving. So we can start with the good news for Senator Grassley. The bad news is that 45% approval ties with his lowest approval rating ever. And you have to go back to when he was first in office in the early '80s to see that number. Here is a Senator who has had stratospheric approval numbers hitting 80%, I think even one time 81%. So for him to have fallen -- and the last several polls he has been under 50% approval -- it suggests that there is some weakness there.

Murphy: And that was going to be my question because he has also won by some stratospheric numbers in past election cycles. So does this low approval rating mean that maybe he is vulnerable this time around, that he may be facing a competitive race, unlike his previous campaigns?

Selzer: Now, of course we know he will always have an R next to his name on the ballot and that is going to carry some water here in Iowa. But if you kind of get into the business of reading the tea leaves, which I can't resist doing, one of the things that stands out is his approval rating among republicans, among his base, it's 71%. And you might say, well that sounds like a perfectly good number. But both Joni Ernst and Kim Reynolds, two other republicans who won statewide office, are higher than that. So I think for Governor Reynolds she is in the 88% range, Joni Ernst is at 80%. So for Chuck Grassley to not only be in the 70s but the low 70s, it seems to me that there is a story there, there is something going on in terms of Iowans' support for Senator Grassley.

Murphy: And to that point, and I don't know how much the cross tabs are able to tell you, we do know that among the Trump voting, Donald Trump voting base, that some of them are upset with some positions and votes that Senator Grassley has taken. Do you think that is where some of that republican support arose is within that Trump voting base?

Selzer: Well, because President Trump is still very popular in Iowa that is not much of a leap to suggest that there is something going on there. And it could be, in previous polls we took a look at whether people were ready for a different senator and even among Iowa republicans there was interest in maybe it's time for someone new. So it could just be burnout, wear out.

Murphy: Yeah, and just really quickly because she's not on the ticket for a while yet, but Senator Joni Ernst was also polled at the same numbers, 45% and 41%. What does that tell you about where she stands right now fresh off an election?

Selzer: Well, isn't that interesting that both Senators earned the same numbers but the underlying strength is a little bit different there. So, Joni Ernst has sort of gone up and down a little bit, that she is now above water, she spent some time under water with more disapproving than approving. It seems that she is in a solid place right now.

Masters: Let's move onto another big candidate on the ballot next year and that is Governor Kim Reynolds, republican Governor Kim Reynolds. What are her approval ratings looking like right now?

Selzer: Well, our last several polls she has been very steady and the only politician that we polled who is above the 50% mark. So this is something pollsters take a look at. Do you get majority saying you're doing a good job? And she gets it for her overall number but she also gets it for all of the elements in handling COVID, in handling the economy, every way that we measured it she got at least 50% saying they approve.

Masters: So, Governor Reynolds came into this position to be Governor when former Governor Terry Branstad became U.S. Ambassador to China under the Trump administration and we had a very competitive race in 2018 when she ran against Fred Hubbell, the democrat on that ticket. How different does this feel? That was a very competitive race, she has been Governor for four years when she get on the ballot again, obviously the pandemic has put a lot to deal with for her as Governor. How competitive does this race look when you look back at previous or can you do that kind of --

Selzer: It's a little early for that in that we will have a democratic primary and it looks like there will be competition there. So that is a chance for the candidates who want to be governor to sell their story and to sell their vision for Iowa. And once you kind of see their ability to attract people, then you get an idea of how competitive it might be. She's starting in a good place, that is for sure, in that she is the only one who got more than 50% approval. She'd like 60% approval, don't get me wrong. But as long as she is close to 50% she is starting in a good place.

Murphy: Do you, I don't believe you did in this recent batch of polls, have you surveyed even just name recognition on any of the democratic candidates for governor? Ras Smith is a state legislator, Deidre DeJear a former candidate for Secretary of State.

Selzer: We did in a previous poll and one of the things that we want to do is kind of set a benchmark against which to see how they get better or get better known. And Deidre DeJear had run for statewide office before, but her numbers were really not appreciatively better than, help me --

Henderson: Ras Smith from Waterloo.

Selzer: Exactly. And what I'm meaning when I say that is they can say how favorably they feel toward the person, or if you don't know the person well enough to say, we say just tell us you're not sure. And they had huge not sure numbers. So well over 50%, I think 60%, 70%, maybe even 80%. They are just unknown at this point in time. And that is why it's hard to say how competitive this race might be. There's a lot of ground --

Murphy: -- a lot of work to do to introduce themselves to Iowa voters.

Selzer: Exactly.

Henderson: For the benefit of our viewers, remind us when the most recent Iowa Poll was conducted.

Selzer: It was conducted I think, help me, in November. I probably have --

Henderson: Earlier this month.

Selzer: November 7th through 10th.

Henderson: Earlier this month. And the Grinnell College Poll was conducted previous to that. Both of them tried to take a read within the state of Iowa and then on a national level about a 2024 rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Let's start with the Iowa Poll, which is more recent data, but it showed Trump would trump Biden again, right?

Selzer: Trump would trump Biden again by 11 points. So that is a bigger margin than how he actually won. But it's 51% to 40% and any time a candidate hits the 50% mark, again, that is telling us where the majority of likely voters are starting to think about things. So I think Iowa looks like it's a good place for Donald Trump should he decide to run again. It's not the whole story for him, but it starts in a good place.

Henderson: And as I recall, in the Grinnell Poll it was sort of a tie.

Selzer: It was 40% to 40%, it was dead even. Now, that is a national poll. And so what that is telling you is what the popular vote might be. And that would suggest that there is a little bit more opportunity perhaps nationally for the popular vote.

Henderson: Well, let's probe in Iowa what a Trump endorsement means for a republican, because this polling data gives us a little bit of a snapshot of why it's important to candidates like Chuck Grassley who got an endorsement from the former President at a rally here in Iowa this fall.

Selzer: Exactly. I can't tell you that it improved his numbers to get that. But of course those endorsements, that's not just a moment in time, that is how Senator Grassley is going to campaign, it says a lot about what kinds of things the former President might be saying more specifically about why to support him. We'll see how that plays out.

Henderson: In the political realm we always talk about a midterm election, which means in the middle of a President's term, and the party in control, in other words, if a democrat is in the White House the Democratic Party will do worse and conversely if a republican is in the White House republicans tend to do worse in that midterm election. What do we see historically in Iowa in regards to a midterm election? And what do these most recent results tell you?

Selzer: Well, we chose because we have just rejiggered the congressional map, we chose not to ask a question about who would you vote for because it's not really clear exactly how the candidates are going to stack up there. So I can't give you a horse race question for those things. But historically, Iowa tends to go as the nation goes until they don't. And so they in the previous election in 2018, that would have been a midterm election for President Trump, well three Iowans went to Congress, three democrats went to Congress and then in 2020 two of them were shipped back home. So Iowa and congressional districts, it's always a product of how the districts are drawn and then the quality of the candidates.

Murphy: So we're looking ahead to next year's elections and one of the questions asked about Iowans' confidence in the election results coming up the next time around, and I have again written down here, nearly a third of Iowans, 32% said they are doubtful that the election results will be counted -- and we're seeing that nationally too. I'm just wondering what that polling suggested to you. And maybe what was interesting to me was as state lawmakers debated a bill here recently about election laws they said, we're confident in the election results here in Iowa and what happened here in Iowa, the problems were elsewhere. This polling seems to suggest that there are a lot of Iowans that are not confident in the election results.

Selzer: Yeah, 30% is not a small number. That is one thing a pollster is always thinking about. Is this a big number or is it a small number? So that you have 30% who are questioning whether the votes will be counted as the voter wished, that was the way that we cast it. I think it reflects in Iowa what we see nationally, which is the election system has been called into question and the election system has apparently not really addressed the questions that have been asked of it. And so you end up with a sizeable number saying, I'm doubtful.

Murphy: And like so many other numbers, this one included, there was a strong partisan difference. 88% of democrats said that they will be confident in the election results, fewer than half only 48% of republicans. What does that say to you, that partisan breakdown in viewpoints on election results?

Selzer: Well, I will tell you that same partisan breakdown we saw in the Grinnell College National Poll and we have been asking that question over time. And in fact, it wasn't until our previous poll last year that you really saw that partisan difference, that democrats and republicans were pretty much together. And then democrats sort of, if anything, increased their confidence and republicans plunged in terms of their confidence.

Murphy: And I'm sorry, when did you say that divergence started to happen?

Selzer: Well, we certainly reported it out in our earlier poll this year in March, but I think we had even started to see that last year. And what that says is that the conversation about voting is happening in a different way in republican circles than it is happening in democratic circles. I don't know that it's happening at all in democratic circles. But from my view of media across all the whole spectrum you hear about it a lot on news media that tilt more to the right.

Masters: At the same time, there was also recent poll results that came out from the Iowa Poll about the insurrection on the United States Capitol on January 6th. What did that tell you about how Iowans view what happened on January 6th at the U.S. Capitol?

Selzer: Well, and that was one of those moments that you just kind of, it puts some puzzle pieces together for you, which is democrats almost universally, 93%, chose the option of describing it as a threat to democracy, an insurrection and a threat to democracy and that just 20% of republicans said the same. So for every four democrats saying it was an insurrection, just one republican. The plurality of republicans said this is a protest that is protected by the free speech amendment, the First Amendment. That was the most common answer they gave. And so in my head I'm thinking, well that is a partisan divide surely. But it starts to become a divide of realities, of the way that they are assessing the same activity and coming to different conclusions. And I think that is interesting and worth watching.

Masters: And moving to the National Poll, the Grinnell College Poll, you also took a temperature on how people view democracy as a whole and how things are going overall. What did that tell you nationally compared to some of the things that are happening in viewpoints in Iowa?

Selzer: Well, first of all, the numbers for the Grinnell College National Poll, 52% a majority of U.S. residents described what is happening right now as a major threat to American democracy. That is a majority viewpoint of everybody. It was more commonly cited that was by republicans, 71%, and that says, again, that there is a different sort of take on what is happening. And just anecdotally the reason for that question was that one of my journalism sources said, hey suddenly the democrats are waking up to say that there's a problem here with the threat to democracy, that would be a good question. So the thought was that there had been a surge in interest among the democrats of addressing this threat and yet this was far more likely to be seen as a threat to American democracy among republicans.

Masters: So in your head you're constantly keeping an Iowa Poll in mind and a National Poll in mind. How do you sort the two different because they are very different in how they take a temperature of the state and the nation as a whole?

Selzer: That's right. Well, the Iowa Poll has a long tradition. And so we have a lot of ways to look at things over time. We've got a big index going back to 1943 of every question that has ever been asked. So we're grounded in what is happening in the state. The Grinnell College National Poll, under the new presidency of Anne Harris, decided that it would take as its focus going forward what is the health of American democracy? And so we're drawing across their departments with professors who have interests in various parts of that, but with a really keen focus. And sometimes the Iowa Poll Committee will take a look at something we did for the Grinnell Poll and go, let's have some of that here. So we draw from all sorts of sources for just about everything.

Henderson: Well, I don't know which Grinnell professor or who may have told you to ask this question in the Grinnell National Poll, but you did probe what the view is of important institutions, the federal government and the U.S. Supreme Court. And you found some, you've described them as remarkable results.

Selzer: So, let's start with the federal government. And so people could answer they feel how confident are they, they could be very confident all the way down to not confident, just 7% of U.S. residents described their view of the federal government as having confidence in it. 7%, that's single digits, you hardly ever see that. So you have to think, well democrats control Congress, they control the White House, surely democrats have a better view. Well, marginally, 14%. So there's a crisis of confidence in the federal government and it extends beyond the White House and beyond Congress. We asked a question about the Supreme Court as to whether they think decisions that that court is making are based more on the politics of the people making the decision or more by following the Constitution and the law. And it was a majority of 62% who said the Supreme Court makes decisions on the basis of politics. So I would describe the Grinnell Poll Committee as gobsmacked. I don't think anybody wrote that question, including me, thinking that the majority opinion would be that it has been politicized.

Henderson: Well, none of us sitting at this table were writing poll questions or covering polls during the Watergate era. But is this sort of transitioning back to the skepticism that Americans had about the federal government during the Watergate era?

Selzer: You know, I don't have those numbers to share with you, but I think one of the things that happened with the Watergate era is that there was wall-to-wall coverage on television of those hearings and it seems, in my memory, I was 17 at the time, that it seemed like every day there was some new development and it snowballed and snowballed to a point that on my birthday Richard Nixon left office. He had announced it the day before on my grandfather's birthday, but I got the day he got on the helicopter and waved goodbye. But it was a time when people had to re-evaluate what they knew about how government operated and because of the television coverage they had access in a way that we don't really have today. So, what we have today are two, as I said, sort of diverse realities in how they are presenting what is going on and so I don't know that a nation will come to hold the same opinion about what is happening except that they don't like it. They probably don't like it for different reasons.

Murphy: So there are a couple of other questions in the recent batch of Iowa Polls that weren't necessarily about politicians or election races that we also wanted to get to. And the couple that maybe give us a glimpse into why Governor Reynolds' numbers are so strong. You asked about vaccine mandates and face mask policies in schools. And both of those a majority, more than 50%, supported new laws enacted by Governor Reynolds and largely driven by republicans in the state legislature and those two laws create more exemptions for the COVID vaccine and basically prevent schools from being able to enact face mask policies, although that one is caught up in the court system. So a majority of Iowans agreed, seem to agree with Governor Reynolds on those positions, is that right?

Selzer: Well, and a majority gave her approval rating on handling the virus high marks. So all of this, we've had this dust storm of policies kind of rolling along and now it has changed and now it has changed and I think Iowans are trying to settle in on what is the right way to go. But it still, part of the discord is not knowing for sure what is going to happen tomorrow. Okay, so here are the rules today. What happens tomorrow? And of course, frustration with having gone through a year or more of lockdown and then trying to get people back out in a way that makes sense. And for the most part here people think that her view that bans mandates, a double negative there, is the correct way. More think that than oppose that.

Masters: Another one of the issues we wanted to get to that you polled on as well was something that dominated the headlines throughout Iowa through much of October and a lot of November, the John Deere strikes that affected thousands of workers throughout the state. First off, there was a lot of news out there back in 2017 when the republican legislature did away with bargaining rights for public sector workers, public sector unions. How much polling -- I know you said back to the 1940s, right -- but how much polling have you done on labor issues and confidence for strikes or confidence for workers? Because overwhelmingly it looked that the Iowa public was supporting the workers at John Deere.

Selzer: That's right. And we did go back to our archive to take a look at what other, what else we knew about labor or even what proportion of Iowans belong to a union or organization that bargains collectively. And it is really, it is small and it has gotten smaller. So it's not that big of a population. So in the case of John Deere it was really a matter of people saying, the workers are in the right. It's not just I support unions, it's that workers are in the right. I was asked by one of the journalists at the Des Moines Register if we had anything on any other specific strike and they mentioned a strike at Maytag when it was in Newton and I went back and searched the archive and I said, the only reference we have to Maytag is Maytag blue cheese and whether that is a favorite Iowa-based food.

Murphy: That probably wasn't very helpful.

Selzer: Not helpful.

Henderson: We have half a minute left, just a final question. How much do voter attitudes about the economy and their financial circumstances with their presidential preference?

Selzer: Not as much as you might think. But, as the economy goes so candidates go in terms of how they are positioning what it is that they want to make happen. So I look for the economy to be a big part of the coming campaigns.

Henderson: Well, thank you for your expertise and sharing it with our viewers today.

Selzer: My pleasure.

Henderson: You can watch Iowa Press anytime at iowapbs.org. On behalf of everyone here at Iowa PBS, have a great holiday season.

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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. 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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