Public Opinion Pollster

Iowa Press | Episode
Nov 11, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, J. Ann Selzer, public opinion pollster, discusses Tuesday's general election results, her recent polling and what it all means moving forward.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Clay Masters, lead political reporter and host for Iowa Public Radio.

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


What might Tuesday's election results and public opinion tell us about what's ahead? We sit down with one of the most respected pollsters in the country, Iowa's own Ann Selzer, on this edition of Iowa Press.


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


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 11th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: Our guest started at the Des Moines Register in late 1987 right before the 1988 Caucuses. She founded Selzer and Company in 1996. And she has been involved in innumerable Iowa Polls and the results that you read online and in your newspaper. Ann Selzer, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Selzer: Wonderful to be here, thank you.

Henderson: Joining our conversation are Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: So Ann, obviously a lot to go through here with the midterm elections that just happened earlier this week. In Iowa there were some interesting results from your poll in Iowa's U.S. Senate race. Your penultimate poll showed a very close race between Mike Franken, the democratic challenger and Chuck Grassley, the republican incumbent. I believe it was a three point margin on that one.

Selzer: That's right.

Murphy: And then your final poll just before Election Day showed I think an 11 point margin. Do I remember that right?

Selzer: Very close to that, double digits.

Murphy: So what were you able to see in there? What happened? Why that shift in a relatively short amount of time, only a matter of weeks?

Selzer: Well, as you can imagine when that earlier poll came out there was a lot of talk on Twitter and elsewhere about this can't possibly be right and then the next day we released the Governor's poll which showed her with a 17 point lead. So all of the speculation that we had a sample that was not weighted properly or didn't include the right cross section, that sort of dried up. What happens is campaigns. And I think what really happened was in turnout. So we early had perhaps more enthusiasm, it was closer to when the Dobbs decision was made and that abortion was an issue that was really sort of igniting on the democratic side. And then by the time our final poll came around that seemed to have settled and independent voters, for one, were more backing Grassley. Also, Mike Franken's lead with women wasn't particularly strong and the lead that Grassley held with men was in fact quite strong. And we normally see those things, that gender gap offset each other and that is one of the things we didn't see in that final poll.

Murphy: Something somewhat similar happened two years ago as well in Iowa's U.S. Senate race between republican Joni Ernst and democrat Theresa Greenfield in where your penultimate poll actually showed Theresa Greenfield ahead in that one and then your last poll showed Ernst ahead and she ultimately won that race. Is there something -- I was wondering is there a correlation there? Are Iowa voters in these races kind of going through a shopping process still maybe in the final stages of these campaigns?

Selzer: I wish I had an answer for that. You had two good candidates in terms of the Theresa Greenfield and the Joni Ernst, you had two good candidates in the Mike Franken and Chuck Grassley. But some things sort of sort themselves out. One of the things that I think also happened is that we had a strong Governor, popular Governor who was challenged by somebody not very well known and every poll that we did, we did three pre-election polls, Kim Reynolds held a 17 point lead roughly plus or minus. And that was consistent all the way through. And so I think part of this what happened is that republicans kind of decided to be republicans and they persuaded some independents to come along with them. But those last two weeks ahead of the election you don't get a busier time for people trying to persuade people, number one, who to vote for, but secondly, to show up and vote.

Masters: Let's talk about that Governor's race. You said a 17 point lead for Governor Reynolds in those last two polls that were published. Did she carry a lot of these down ticket races? The Chairman of the Republican Party always says that we're the party of Kim Reynolds. Is that what panned out on Election Day?

Selzer: It's speculation at this point but that idea holds water. That is that you had longtime Attorney General Tom Miller who had been leading by a double digit margin in an earlier poll and he lost it. We had him within 2 points which just didn't seem possible. So did Kim Reynolds sort of carry them through? If you recall, she said at one point, I want my own Attorney General, I want my own Auditor and we don't know about the Auditor as we sit here today. And I don't know if she said it repeatedly, but the time I certainly heard it I thought, well that's interesting, that's very interesting. So people I think who had clearly been split ticket voters, that is they would vote for a republican Governor but they would vote for Tom Miller, decided well let's do this more along party lines.

Masters: Do these polls say anything -- for years we've talked about the voter registration in Iowa being roughly a third, a third, a third with republican, democratic and no party voters. Does this say anything to you these days about who no party voters are? Are they really not persuaded by the political winds or the partisan divide that is currently in this country?

Selzer: Well, they're a third, a third, a third according to the Secretary of State's data. We ask them to self-identify as independent. And I think they are, to say that they are fickle doesn't give them enough respect. That is, they are persuadable. And so whatever is happening they are open to thinking about things a different way. That is not to say that they are the most informed or the most enthusiastic. So there is that that is happening with that group as well. So they just don't lock in, we might put it that way.

Murphy: How big is that piece of the pie? Do you have a sense of that, what percentage voters are that that you're describing?

Selzer: I could look that up.

Henderson: In an interview with Radio Iowa on Election Day, Senator Grassley reflecting on how this race had been different from his previous races said, it used to be there were 15% of persuadable people. And he said, this time it's about 5%. Does that sort of match the data that you have?

Selzer: Well, it depends on how you're defining persuadable. And I think what he may be saying is the proportion of people when we ask who are you going to vote for, and if they say not sure, we ask them well where do you lean and that gets miniscule more voters there. But what is leftover is sometimes as high as 15%, that is they have not decided, they're not sure, they don't want to tell us and he may be saying that that has dropped down to 5%. I would think about persuadable. I'm using persuadable in a different way.

Henderson: Okay, well following up on Clay's line of questioning, does your polling show that Iowa is "a red state"?

Selzer: I don't know what other definition there would be. If you have control of both houses of the Statehouse and the Governor and every other statewide, again as we sit we don't know the Auditor's outcome, but it's potentially that everything is red.

Murphy: Is there an urban rural divide that we see sometimes? Is that showing up in your polling?

Selzer: It is indeed. If you tell us that you live in a city you're much more likely to be a democratic voter and if you tell us you live in the country you're much more likely, in fact that is one of the strongest demographics that predicts republican voting.

Murphy: And so we talk about this and you mentioned that share of persuadable voters, moving forward is Iowa going to continue to be a red state or are there -- and I'm not asking you to crystal ball what the next election is going to be -- but more so are there Iowans out there, are there voters out there, that could be convinced to be democratic voters in 2024 or 2026 down the road?

Selzer: Well, I have a crystal ball collection but I have not consulted it for that. What we know is that population movement is from rural into cities and we know that city voters -- and so what is the cause and what is the effect? Do they move to the city because they feel alienated among their peers? We talk about the great sort and that people sort of want to live with people who think like them. I don't know. I don't think -- I think it's far more candidate specific although certainly the parties and their ability to build a party structure that includes good compelling candidates obviously will say a lot about what happens going forward.

Henderson: Well, the answer to Erin's question is something that Iowa democrats are wrestling with because at the beginning of December they are going to be before the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee saying hey, hey, hey, don’t look at those results from November 8th, we're still a purple state. And is there any evidence of that in the data?

Selzer: Depending on how you want to count a purple state, I would think you need democrats to win statewide offices since the Caucuses are statewide. I don't see it.

Masters: Looking kind of behind the curtain, not too much, but when we talk about polling there was an NPR story this week that was talking about how challenging just conducting polls tends to be right now. I think one of the people that was quoted was saying like 50 calls to get one person to pick up. I know a lot of times I will look at my phone, I don't know the number that is calling me and I'm not answering that. What challenges do you have in just conducting polls when there aren't very many landlines, people are skeptics about talking to somebody on the phone? What can you tell us about how challenging it is to conduct your line of work these days?

Selzer: Well, I used to say with every election cycle it gets harder and harder and then I have narrowed that. And so every day, every second it gets harder and harder. We have some good fortune in that we poll here in Iowa predominantly, we poll elsewhere too. But when people are called and when they answer the phone, the first thing they hear is I'm calling from the Iowa Poll. And so our response rate is not nothing to brag about but it is much higher than many other polling firms have. And I think that has helped us along the way that way.

Masters: Any other challenges that you're seeing crop up as you squeeze it more and more?

Selzer: We rely on the kindness of strangers, as Tennessee Williams had one of his characters say, and that is we call you and if you're kind you will answer your phone and then if you're more kind you will stay on the phone with us and complete an interview. And there's really nothing in it for you unless you sort of feel like that is part of your patriotic duty, which we hope people would think that. So that business model is tough. That's just tough. In the early days of the Iowa Poll, interviewers went door-to-door and they'd sit on the front porch and they'd have a glass of iced tea and they'd work on filling out a questionnaire. So, so much has changed and the direction that things continue to change makes the idea of a volunteer respondent pool look more difficult. For me, while it is difficult, it's my best option as I assess the other, the failings of other methods.

Henderson: There has been a lot of talk nationally about turnout among the so-called Gen Z'ers. Do you know in maybe the polling data you had and now the election data you have in Iowa what that cohort did here?

Selzer: I can't tell you that the Secretary of State has published anything by age. I'm looking forward to that and really hashing that data out. We didn't see anything in our data that was a strong surge in youth voting. The point I do want to make, which you have not asked me but I think this is very important to understanding this election, is that we saw a decline in early voting and I mean enough that I on the second night of looking at our data I said, wait a second, something may be wrong, I talked to my phone bank to be sure that people who had already voted knew that they were welcome into this poll. All of that turned out to reflect what we saw happen, which is we had about half the proportion of people we consider likely voters say that they had already voted that we normally see. So it was I think, if I may --

Henderson: Was it 32% --

Murphy: It was in the high 20s, low 30s percent from the state early ballots that were cast, they were down around 30% from the previous gubernatorial election from 2018.

Selzer: From 2018, well we were showing in our data 15% of the people that we contacted said they had already voted and compared to of course 2020 was huge with early voting it was 43%, so almost three times as much. And before that 26%, 25%, 24% was what we would normally see. And so what happens, the consequence of that is that traditionally democrats bank a whole lot of votes in early voting, that that's a big push that they have, and roughly that vote is two to one, roughly twice as many people voting for democrats as voting for republicans. And so when you shrink the proportion of the total electorate that is, to me that is one of the compelling explanations for why Iowa went so republican.

Murphy: Interesting. Kind of to turn the camera on ourselves a little bit here but to get your perspective, there is some sentiment out there that the media can place too much focus on polling and the horse race, so to speak, and campaigns. I'm wondering what your perspective is on that as a pollster. Do you think that sometimes reporters get too caught up in the polling and the horse race and don't focus enough on the issues in a campaign?

Selzer: Well, this is completely my opinion. I know the polls. So when reporters are reporting on the polls that's not news to me. What would be news to me is what is actually going on inside the campaigns. Now, in the old, olden days it used to be the reporters would get so caught up in what they saw as happening as showing a lot of momentum for a particular candidate that they were calling that this is the person who is going to win without any polling data to back it up. And sometimes our poll would come out and go, I don't know what he's seeing but the poll does not suggest that that's what is going to happen. So it's a nice balance for the readers and for the viewers to sort of have an understanding of why the campaign is doing what it's doing but also where the traction is, what that really means.

Henderson: Well there is also a conversation that more polling should focus on issues rather than candidates. How would that play out in Iowa?

Selzer: Well, the poll reason that media companies like many of my clients do polling is not just to show the horse race but to help explain why the vote is happening the way that it happens. So our final poll included a question about what are the critical issues that you're thinking about as you're deciding your vote. And it was very clear that if you were thinking about inflation, if you were thinking about crime as critical issues you supported republicans. If you were thinking about abortion and thinking about health care, you supported democrats, but by a narrower margin. Again, a partial explanation for why what happened, happened.

Murphy: Were those the top issues that voters mentioned in this past election?

Selzer: The top issue that was mentioned was who has control of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives? And that was a more even divide in terms of whether those people who said that was critical to their vote, which way they were going to vote.

Murphy: So we talk about how races, even local races, are becoming more and more nationalized. That may be why.

Selzer: Well, when you watch some of the candidates, some of them were talking about they're not running, they're running for statewide office talking about Joe Biden on the republican side and talking about other issues that don't have, they're not going to play out necessarily in the legislature or in terms of state government agencies. But they saw that that's where you want to link your wagon and hammer that home.

Masters: We've talked about some of the races. Let's talk about some of the issues then. You mentioned abortion, reproductive rights, had some victories in places like Kentucky and in Michigan. What does the polling show for reproductive rights issues here in the state? We talk a lot about how it has a lot of national support in polling. Does that pan out in the polls that you have put forward?

Selzer: You're calling on me to conjure up poll numbers that are a little late in my history. So I think I would say that 60% roughly of Iowans say they think all or most abortions should be legal and it has been sort of inching upward percentage point by percentage point over the last year or so. So that's where they are. In terms of having measured the so-called fetal heartbeat bill, we had an early poll when that was being debated that that's going too far for Iowa. We'll see. The tea leaves would suggest that there is a constituency that wishes for abortion to be available here in Iowa. We'll see what happens with the legislature and so on.

Henderson: Missouri passed a marijuana initiative, so I guess people can go across the border and buy marijuana and fireworks. How has your polling shown, if at all, change on that particular issue?

Selzer: We have seen the most change in terms of wishing medical marijuana to be legal and it is under some constraints now. And you've seen some upward progress in terms of recreation. We haven't measured it for a while. But that is something that many states are finding is useful. And this is going back a ways but when we did some polling in Colorado when it was on their ballot, it reversed the gender gap. There were more men voting for democrats than women were, which my client at that time thought must be a mistake and could I please fix it. But it turned out that the marijuana initiative brought in new voters and that that's what ended up changing the shape of that electorate. And that I think is what is interesting to ponder for the future, what can you do to attract new voters, people who sort of sit out the contest or people who are newly eligible to vote? That I think is going to shape what happens going forward.

Murphy: And another issue, speaking about issues that drive or attract new voters, democrats in some campaigns, including here in Iowa, talked about the health or the future of democracy in the U.S. obviously talking about people who doubt the results of elections and how that all led to the January 6th attacks on the Capitol and the need to take steps at the federal level to preserve democracy. Is that something -- did that show up in your polling in this election? Was that a motivating factor for -- clearly not enough to help democrats win obviously -- did it show up on the radar even in what was important to Iowa voters?

Selzer: It was something, excuse me for this, but it's something that we did ask about in terms of who would be better, Grassley or Franken, in terms of defending the Constitution. Well, Chuck Grassley won that but he won every trait that we asked about. So that's a little hard to say. I think this is an issue that will continue to be of interest and something that we're going to be delving into. Our company does work for the Grinnell College National Poll and their University President Anne Harris has teed that up as what she wants that poll to really delve into, the health of American democracy. So we'll be doing more polling on that.

Murphy: So stay tuned.

Selzer: Stay tuned.

Masters: At the end of the day as far as when you look back at the polling that you've done in this most recent cycle, earlier you were talking about hey I wish you would have asked me about this, here's some information about early voting. What kind of post-mortems do you have on this poll that you think are important to bring up when thinking about how Iowans are polled in public opinion surveys like this?

Selzer: When I think about how Iowans are polled, we're a little early for the post-mortem, I think the patient is still warm on the table. And what I'll answer with is where do I go to figure that out. I don't believe there were any exit polls that were conducted in Iowa. In midterms they're more selective about where they're going to go. That's some place that I'd like to go. The Secretary of State we're fortunate to have a lot of data that are available to crunch and we'll take a look at it. The thing I learned from the 2020 election that was helpful in thinking and sort of analyzing other people's polls is that the registration is 33%, 33%, 33% but 38% of republicans voted. So if you were making your poll respondent pool look 33%, 33%, 33% you undercounted republicans. So I go looking for those sorts of things to figure out what happened, what mistake could I make that I wouldn't want to and my method would not allow me to make, those sorts of things.

Murphy: Your poll was, especially at the top of the ticket with the Senate and the Governor's races here in Iowa, the very last one was remarkably close once again to the outcomes. How does November 9th feel like for Ann Selzer, especially on those days?

Selzer: Well, it's the days before where you've released the poll and now people are talking about it and there's nothing to say except we'll wait and see. I think one of the things that struck me was looking at the actual numbers of votes that got cast and there were more votes, this is a fun fact, that were cast for Paul Pate as Secretary of State than were cast for Kim Reynolds. Also for the Secretary of Agriculture, is it Michael Naig --

Henderson: He was the top vote getter, 727,000 votes.

Selzer: There you've got that number right there. For the Governor's race, so Deidre DeJear did not win and it was a sizeable loss, but Tom Miller got 100,000 votes more as did the challenger for the Secretary of Agriculture. And it's interesting to see, again, the ticket splitting that has to be going on there. And I think that is one thing that maybe going back to your Caucus question on the democratic side is that Iowa has a long history of ticket splitting and less so in this election but that doesn't necessarily mean it's forever stopped.

Henderson: Well, sorry we have to stop this conversation, Ann Selzer. Thanks again for joining us on this edition of Iowa Press.

Selzer: My pleasure.

Henderson: If you missed part of this program and want to watch it all you can go online to where every episode of Iowa Press is accessible. For everyone here at the network, thanks for watching.


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