Needless to say, from the pollster's perspective, there were three big winners in Iowa last night: Barack Obama, Mike Huckabee and J. Ann Selzer, the pollster for the Des Moines Register.
As regular readers know, the final Register "Iowa Poll," released on New Year's Eve, showed Barack Obama leading Hillary Clinton by a seven-point margin (32% to 25%), followed closely by John Edwards (at 24%). The result was stunning, indicating a better Obama showing by far than in other recent polls. Only two polls released during the latter half of December had shown Obama even nominally "ahead," and neither margin was large enough to attain statistical significance. Earlier that day, our "sensitive estimate" (based on all other recent polls, but set to be more sensitive to the most recent) gave Clinton a 4.5 point lead over Obama. The Reuters/Zogby tracking survey released that morning (and conducted even more recently than the Register poll) showed Clinton leading Obama by 4 points (30% to 26%).
The explanation for the difference was even more stunning. "Obama's rise," the Register reported, was "the result in part of a dramatic influx of first-time caucusgoers, including a sizable bloc of political independents." The poll showed 60% saying this would be their first caucus and 40% identifying their party preference as Democratic. No other poll that disclosed similar results to Pollster.com came close on either measure. Within an hour or so of its release, the Register poll had been condemned by the Clinton and Edwards campaign pollsters as inaccurate, "at odds with history" and based on an "unprecedented new turnout model." The only way the poll would be accurate, Edwards consultant Joe Trippi said later, is if "220,000 people vote."
Despite the dark insinuation, Selzer had not changed her methodology. She had "assumed nothing" about the demographics or party allegiance of the likely caucus goers interviewed by her company. Instead, as she explained it to the News Hour, "we put our method in place, and we let the voters speak to us." In the face of massive skepticism, some of which seemed to come even from the Register's most prominent columnist, she stood by her numbers.
And yesterday, those findings were vindicated. Obama won by an 8-point margin in the official results and by approximately seven-points on the (more comparable) entrance poll head count estimate. The turnout was 239,000, nearly double the number from 2004. And the entrance poll put the share of first-time caucus participants at 57%. The only mismatch was on party -- 23% were independent or Republican on the entrance poll as compared to 45% on the Register survey.
I would urge some caution on making too much of the inconsistency on party. The jury may still be out on that issue. Pollsters sometimes get slightly different results on that question depending on the exact wording, the structure of answer categories or on the nature of other questions asked earlier in the survey.
In this case, it is also worth remembering that 100% of the caucus-goers were registered Democrats by the time the Caucuses got underway last night. Those who had been registered as Republicans or who had a "no party" status had to fill out a form to switch their registration as soon as they arrived. A friend within the Obama campaign tells me they went to great lengths to prepare newcomers for the process of switching their registration: they described the process in radio spots, campaign literature, canvass scripts, email and four direct-mail pieces sent to identified supporters. Other campaigns presumably provided similar preparation for identified caucus newcomers.
So we can safely assume that most non-Democratic registrants arrived at their caucus location expecting to fill out a form switching their party registration to Democratic. Is it a stretch to assume that many, who described their party leanings as "independent" in a telephone interview a few days before, were more likely to check "Democrat" on a paper questionnaire they filled out as they entered their caucus location?
Of course, party identification and party registration are not the same thing. The entrance poll party question asked explicitly about how "you usually think of yourself." Also, I am not sure there were enough party switchers to support a the 45% result, even if my theory about a "measurement" shift on the entrance poll is valid. However, the answer is knowable. The Iowa Democratic Party will be able to report on the number of new registrants and party switchers in a few weeks, and while she has not yet reported it, Selzer can compare those statistics to the number of non-Democratic registrants that qualified for the survey (remember, though they are highly correlated).
Either way, Selzer and the Iowa Poll got the big story exactly right, and they saw the results coming when other pollsters were showing something very different.
And what about the critics that spun so furiously to discredit her results? ABC's Gary Langer adds this postscript:
On the press plane flying from Iowa to New Hampshire [this morning], our off-air reporter Eloise Harper reports, “Mark Penn admitted to knowing that the trend was shifting towards Obama this past week.”
That means that at the very moment Penn was accusing the Des Moines Register of producing unreliable data, and saying it was Clinton who had the momentum, he knew otherwise.
So to be clear. Ann Selzer changed nothing about her methods, stood by her result and earned vindication, demonstrating the considerable integrity and courage that had already earned her the respect of her colleagues. Mark Penn trashed her poll and then changed his story.
Charles Franklin posted his thoughts earlier on how our polling trends compare to the entrance poll and official results, and we will have more to say soon about the exit the "accuracy" of Iowa polling. Stay tuned.
**Apologies to Langer (for the title)