Iowa poll snafu leaves Democrats guessing on eve of caucuses
DES MOINES, Iowa — A stunning decision to scrap the final bellwether poll of Iowa Democratic voters ahead of Monday’s first-in-the-nation caucuses represented something of a fitting end to a roller-coaster political season, leaving party activists and pundits guessing.
The Des Moines Register, CNN and pollster Ann Selzer decided not to release the poll’s results after a technical error apparently left one of the lead contenders, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, off of at least one survey. Selzer and the media partners concluded they could not stand completely behind the survey after the error was discovered.
Selzer’s Iowa Poll has been a must-watch barometer of Iowa voter attitudes since she won the contract to conduct polls for the Des Moines Register in 1997. Her track record has stood out in the notoriously difficult to poll caucus state, calling winners and spotting last-minute movement that other pollsters have missed.
Her reputation is such that political observers see her final pre-caucus poll as a momentous event in the campaign itself, with as much power to move undecided voters off the fence as a closing debate. Rumors of when Selzer will put her poll in the field are vital currency in gossip circles, and stories are written when sources report receiving a polling call.
The Register can ruin a reporter’s weekend, announcing days before that it will publish Selzer’s results late on a Saturday night. CNN had planned to roll out the results live on air on Saturday, plans that were quickly scrubbed when the error was discovered.
In 2004, Selzer’s final survey found former Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) distancing former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) and then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D) after months in which Dean and Gephardt had led in Iowa. In 2008, she found then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) leaping to a 7-point lead, his exact margin of victory over Edwards and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Four years later, Selzer’s poll showed Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) leading the GOP field — but with former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) surging into third place. Days later, Santorum’s momentum carried him past Romney and Paul to claim a stunning upset. And in 2016, Selzer tracked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) rising from 40 points down to a statistical tie with Clinton, results that bore out when the caucus results came in.
Selzer’s most recent survey, conducted in early January, found Sanders jumping to a small lead over Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Joe Biden. The latest poll results would have been the political equivalent of tea leaves to be read ahead of the caucus doors opening, the trend lines like chicken gizzards that foretell the future.
Its absence now raises new questions: Did somebody get robbed of a potentially campaign-defining moment? If someone is surging at the end, are they now deprived of a frameable front page in the state’s largest newspaper and wall-to-wall panel discussions on cable news?
An equally pressing question: If someone’s support is collapsing, did they just dodge what could have been a fatal blow that killed a campaign, the stench of inevitable failure landing at precisely the wrong moment?
Unfounded rumors flew around the internet in the hours after the decision to cancel the poll, fingers flying as supporters of some candidates impugned others. Every possible variable — Sanders surging! Sanders fading! Buttigieg up! Buttigieg down! — echoed across Twitter and flashed into reporters’ email inboxes. The poll certainly mirrored internal surveys conducted for Candidate X, which coincidentally showed Candidate X on the rise. Or it reflected a drop in Candidate X’s support, as internal polling conducted by Candidate Y’s team had measured over the last week.
But for now, the three parties who would know which narrative is correct are clamming up. A source inside CNN told The Hill on Saturday that even the network’s top editors and anchors didn’t know what the poll found. The Des Moines Register did not respond to requests for comment, and Selzer herself declined to discuss the results.
After a year of frenetic campaigning, of candidates building massive armies of supporters across Iowa, raising millions of dollars and sprinting from town hall to town hall, the political world held its breath for a final momentous event that never took place. The voters still on the fence in Iowa — and there are plenty of them — will be forced to find some other reason to decide on a candidate.
Someone got robbed of a key boost from late good news. Someone can breathe a final sigh of relief at bad news averted. But for now, no one outside Selzer, CNN and the Register know what Sunday’s front page might have said.
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