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One Week Out: The Problem With Polling Iowa

By  |  January 25, 2016, 05:55pm

There are a number of polls out that have Donald Trump surging in Iowa at the last minute. I do believe Trump is probably ahead, but I am aware of several of the campaigns’ internal polls and none of them have anything but Cruz and Trump clustered together very closely.

The problem with polling Iowa is that a caucus is not a primary. With a primary, voters go to a polling booth, click the name of the candidate who they support, and leave. With a caucus, often not even in the same location as where voters go to vote in primaries, there is an hour commitment, the voter must be in the room by seven o’clock in the evening, and they must show their support rather publicly.

People who show up for primaries may not know the caucus location, they may not realize they have to stay an hour, and they may think they can show up late. Likewise, we know historic turnout models for caucuses and many of the late polls with a huge Trump lead have turnout models that far exceed even the most historic high turnouts of caucuses past.

My friend Steve Deace, a Cruz supporter, has some very insightful data on caucuses and polling models.

So now we have FOX as well as CNN producing polls this week that show 300,000 Iowans are voting in the Iowa Caucuses, and therefore Trump with a double-digit lead. Allow me to put those projected turnout numbers in perspective:

  • That’s about a 200% voter increase from the highest Iowa Caucus turnout ever back in 2008.
  • The most voters we’ve had in a primary (which always has higher turnout) in Iowa this century is only 230,000. And our last U.S. Senate primary had only roughly 150,000 voters in 2014.
  • There are actually 11,000 fewer registered Republicans in Iowa this January than in January 2015.

Ann Selzer has a very good track record in Iowa, catching both the Huckabee and Santorum trend lines. She’s now caught the Cruz trend line. Pay attention if she releases another poll, but otherwise be cautious. Caucuses are more dependent on ground games than standard primaries. The prevailing consensus of reporters in Iowa is that Cruz, Carson, and Rubio have some of the very best ground game operations.

We have one week to go. We will see how all the data holds up in the face of Donald Trump’s unorthodox campaign. If traditional fundamentals hold, he will not come in first. But if his unorthodox campaign that defies tradition puts him in first, we may see a paradigm shift in electoral politics like we have never seen before.

The danger for Trump is that, with so much late breaking polling showing a renewed and large lead coupled with Trump touting all this polling, expectations are suddenly being set very high for him, which might make him not coming in first very problematic for him.