'Iowa Pete' poll exposes myth that Democrats are veering left

The plethora of political polls these days means most are discounted. An exception: Ann Selzer's renowned Iowa poll; last weekend much of the American political community awaited the results.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Buttigieg rolls out endorsements from South Bend officials Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE surging into a formidable lead among Iowa Democrats in the poll is dominating chatter among the political class and may change the dynamics of the contest. More important: Selzer showed how wide open the Democratic contest is and exposed the widely held myth these voters are veering sharply left.

“Most important to these voters is the winner of the Iowa caucuses has the best chance to beat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE,” Selzer said in an interview. “They think the path to victory is not someone who wants to tear apart the government and start from scratch.”

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Two findings underscore these observations. By two to one, likely caucus attenders in the poll, conducted for the Des Moines Register and CNN, favor someone who can win next November over a candidate who shares their policy positions. By 52 percent to 36 percent, the poll respondents prefer a nominee whose proposals have a good chance to become law versus a candidate with bigger ideas with a lower chance of enactment.

The Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary the following week traditionally have an out-sized impact as they shape which candidates will — and won't — compete in the subsequent bigger contests.

In the Selzer survey, Buttigieg leads with 25 percent followed by Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirs up controversy Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D-Mass.), former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNew York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders 'outraged' after MLB threatens to cut ties with minor league teams Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (I-Vt.) bunched together nine or ten points behind.

These findings pose challenges and opportunities for the front-runners.

It marks the first time that Warren is slipping in surveys. This suggests that the political and policy criticism of her massively liberal positions — particularly a government-run heath care system that eliminates private insurance — is taking a toll.

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Warren has been trying to slightly modify these stands on health care to improve her electability case against Trump. But to win Iowa, she probably has to pick off some of Bernie Sanders’ deeply committed supporters who will be turned off by any move away from the left.

“It's really hard to see much of Bernie's support moving,” Selzer ventures. Conversely, the Vermont Senator would have to win over some Warren backers.

Biden, whose poll standings have slowly declined since entering the race more than six months ago, avoids any free-fall for one reason: Voters still think he has the best chance to defeat Trump. Biden has to keep playing that card, perhaps even stressing the president's effort to pressure the Ukrainians to smear him because his son worked for an energy company there.

The also-rans look like toast. Similarly, in 2007 when front-runners Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Obama: Countries facing severe effects of climate change offer 'moral call to rest of the world' Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability MORE, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo, the polls aren't wrong — but you have to know what to look for How to shut down fake Republican outrage over 'spying' on Trump More than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls MORE and John Edwards, commanded such support that even prominent second-tier candidates, like Joe Biden and Sen. Chris Dodd, couldn't get any political oxygen.

“Of the top four, the plurality of their supporters' second choice is one of the other (top four),” Selzer reports.

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The major effect will be to intensify criticism from opponents on Buttigieg, or — in convicted felon Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneDOJ backs ex-Trump campaign aide Richard Gates's probation request Schiff says investigators seeking to identify who Giuliani spoke to on unlisted '-1' number What if impeachment fails? MORE's infamous phrase — it'll be his “time in the barrel.” When others became the central focus of the debate, Biden, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Sanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate MORE (D-Calif.) and Warren each took a hit.

Buttigieg is exceptionally smart and seems to be personally and substantively secure. He has impressed a diverse array of people — from private dinners with Wall Street titans to forums with Washington journalists to small town Iowa gatherings.

But he hasn't faced the sort of assault that'll be forthcoming in the next few weeks. Newcomers getting into the race — like former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Bloomberg unveils plan to combat climate change, cut emissions by 50 percent in 10 years Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals MORE and ex-Massachusetts Governor Deval PatrickDeval PatrickSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate Booker campaign rakes in million after Harris exits 2020 race Krystal Ball: New Biden ad is everything that's wrong with Democrats MORE because they view Biden as weak — won't be scared off by a 37-year-old, gay, inexperienced mayor of South Bend, population 104,000.

The Iowa Poll will be the starting point for critics. Selzer, once called by the political site 538, the "best pollster in politics," has a near perfect record. Right before the 2008 Iowa caucuses, where Hillary Clinton was the favorite, she stunned the political world with a poll that suggested a massive turnout producing a seven point win for Obama.

The Clinton campaign derided the accuracy and the turnout model.

Caucus night saw a record 236,000 Democrats show up, shattering all records, and Obama won by eight points.

Today, Selzer finds the enthusiasm among these probable caucus voters ten points higher than it was in her fabled Obama election eve survey. More than two thirds of these Iowans say they could change their mind before Feb. 3.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.