As Saturday came to a close, the politics world was set abuzz by some really, really big news. But this event didn’t necessarily pertain to breaking developments in Robert Mueller’s investigation, or even the announcement of another politician exploring a presidential run. Nope, it was a poll: a Selzer poll, to be exact.
For those who are unfamiliar with the work of Selzer & Company, let me give you a brief rundown — Ann Selzer is a pollster based in Des Moines, and she is touted not only as “the most respected pollster in Iowa, but also as the “best pollster in [all of] politics .”
Though she’s been affiliated with the Des Moines Register since the late ’80s, Selzer first made it big in 2008, when her poll suggested that then-Senator Barack Obama would win the Iowa caucuses. Even more surprising was that Selzer reached that conclusion by predicting first-time voters would turn out in droves, which contradicted many other pollsters’ results at the time. Since then, Selzer’s polls of the Iowa caucuses have been highly anticipated and scarily accurate, even when other surveyors fell flat.
Most of the firm’s success lies in its methodology, which uses live interviewers calling both landline and cell phones from a list of all registered voters in Iowa. Ann Selzer has admitted that she doesn’t do much to make her numbers special, instead preferring to brand herself as a “traditionalist, science-based pollster.”
So, what does the best in the business have to say about 2020?
In the poll released yesterday, former Vice President Joe Biden has a strong lead over the rest of the field, with 32% of respondents saying they’d rank him as their first choice. Vermont Senator and 2016 hopeful Bernie Sanders comes in second, and Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke rounds out the top 3. In total, Selzer included 20 candidates in their list, but many at the bottom are considered long-shots.
Perhaps the most notable thing about the results is that the top of the list is dominated by men; California Senator Kamala Harris finished in fifth place with 5 percent, although many still consider her a top pick going into the Democratic primaries.
As I’ve suggested in the past, though, looking at polling numbers this early is rarely productive, as we’re still over a year away from the Iowa caucuses themselves. Rather, if we want to dissect this poll, we should turn to my last column, the percentage of voters who don’t know enough to make a decision. And this is where it gets interesting.
First off, although Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both have near universal name recognition, Biden is polling significantly better. That’s not good for Sanders. Furthermore, politicians like Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris still are unknown to 36 and 41 percent of respondents, respectively. We shouldn’t necessarily consider this a deathknell to either campaigns, though — after all, Barack Obama had very similar numbers in Selzer’s December 2006 poll, and look how he turned out.
Nevertheless, these “don’t know” numbers could help candidates get an understanding of how and where they need to visit between now and the primaries. Just look at former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has gone to Iowa numerous times and now boasts one of the survey’s lowest “Not Sure” numbers.
With their first-in-the-nation distinction, the Iowa caucuses have long been considered the perfect opportunity for dark horses to make a name for themselves. In the end, my biggest takeaway from this new Selzer poll is that the 2020 presidential race is finally upon us, and the candidates still have every opportunity to swing the electorate in their favor.